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Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman Celebrate ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ At Town Hall: Review & Photos

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Words by: Jeffrey Greenblatt

Images by: Jeremy Gordon

Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman feat. Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
09.23.18 :: Town Hall :: New York City

Check out Jeremy’s photos after Jeff’s review.

1968 was a banner year for important and influential records. The Beatles, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Otis Redding and Sly & The Family Stone all put out albums that would help populate “Best Of” lists for years to come. Among that impressive crop was The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, their lone release with Gram Parsons. Sweetheart represented a huge stylistic change for the band that was known as the face of the Los Angeles rock scene. While their fans didn’t quite take to their new country-leaning sound at the time, its the record that is credited as the first commercial country-rock record. Sweetheart became a touchstone for genre’s 1970’s So-Cal heyday, Austin’s outlaw country scene and later an essential reference for the alt-country and Americana movements of the 1990’s and 2000’s.

Now, 50 years later, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman of The Byrds have put together a tour to celebrate its legacy. The pair has hooked up with Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives to honor the album, one that they barely got to tour on as Parsons left the band before its release. This past Sunday, McGuinn and Hillman brought the tour to New York City for the first of two shows at Town Hall. The night was split up into two sets, the first focused on material from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame act’s road to recording the album, while the second featured a complete performance of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.

The early part of the evening felt a bit stiff with McGuinn and Hillman sharing a number of well-scripted and rehearsed stories that bordered on watching a pledge drive during a PBS concert special. While it lacked in looseness, they more than made up for it not only in the song selection but in just how good the pair still sounded 54+ years into their career. McGuinn and Hillman’s distinctive harmonies shined while Stuart & Co. provided the perfect accompaniment, as they took the audience on a journey from their jangly folk-pop days to being country-rock pioneers.

Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” was the perfect starting point for the five-piece ensemble’s hour-long opening frame. McGuinn and Hillman highlighted songs from Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Fifth Dimension and The Notorious Byrd Brothers that showcased the seeds of The Byrds’ gradual shift from their signature hit-making Los Angeles sound to the music coming out of Nashville and Bakersfield. Along the way they delivered takes on “Mr. Spaceman,” “Time Between” and “Wasn’t Born To Follow.” The latter, written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King appeared on both The Notorious Byrd Brothers and the Easy Rider soundtrack as it seemingly served as the pivot point for when the band decided to marry psychedelic rock with country-style guitar playing and lilting pedal steel sounds.

Stories were shared about Parsons being recruited to join a new version of the band with the departure of David Crosby. One of the funnier anecdotes came from Hillman who admitted to thinking Parsons was going to be their new keyboard player after hearing him tinker on the piano. What they ended up with was a singer-songwriter who helped them create a genre-defining record that was the catalyst for country music crossing over into the mainstream rock audience.

The back half of the night is when things really started to click. Stuart and the Superlatives offered a pair of selections from their catalog with McGuinn and Hillman returning to the stage as they kicked into Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” the opening track to Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. The 11-track record, which is bookended by Dylan tunes, only features two originals: both by Parsons. The rest is a mix of traditional folk and bluegrass songs along with selections from classic and contemporary country artists. For those that know and love this album, it was pure joy to hear these songs come alive.

McGuinn and Hillman expertly delivered the bulk of the material. What unfolded was a true masterclass of American roots music. The quartet deftly moved from the high and lonesome sound of The Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life” to Appalachian folk with Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” Two sides of country music were on display with the old-school shuffle of “Blue Canadian Rockies” and Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison” representing what was at the time a contemporary influence. Stuart stepped in to sing lead on Parsons contributions. Parsons’ lovelorn ballad “Hickey Wind” and country-rocker “One Hundred Years” not only gave Stuart an opportunity to step into the spotlight but also gave The Superlatives’ Chris Scruggs a chance to show off his pedal steel skills, providing some true standout moments.

“So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” kicked off the encore, with McGuinn dedicating it to Tom Petty. What unfolded next was a tribute to the late musician, who produced McGuinn’s 1991 album Back From Rio and Hillman’s most recent studio effort Bidin’ My Time. McGuinn first offered up the slightly unremarkable version of “American Girl” that he originally recorded for his 1977 record Thunderbyrd.

A pair of highlights followed as Hillman delivered a gorgeous folkie interpretation of Petty’s “Wildflowers,” while Stuart turned “Runnin’ Down A Dream” into a must-hear bluegrass number. One last blast of nostalgia closed out the night as The Byrds’ co-founders led the audience through a singalong take on Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

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Setlist

McGuinn & Hillman at The Town Hall

  • My Back Pages  
  • A Satisfied Mind  
  • Mr. Spaceman  
  • Time Between  
  • Old John Robertson  
  • Wasn’t Born to Follow  
  • Sing Me Back Home  
  • Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man  
  • Mr. Tambourine Man  
  • Instrumental Outro
Sweetheart of the Rodeo
  • Country Boy Rock & Roll  
  • Time Don’t Wait  
  • You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere  
  • Pretty Boy Floyd  
  • Hickory Wind  
  • Life in Prison  
  • One Hundred Years From Now  
  • Nothing Was Delivered  
  • Blue Canadian Rockies  
  • The Christian Life  
  • You’re Still on My Mind  
  • You Don’t Miss Your Water  
  • I Am a Pilgrim  
  • You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere  
Encore
  • So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star  
  • American Girl  
  • Wildflowers  
  • Runnin’ Down a Dream  
  • Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)  

Source: JamBase.com