The Byrds: Live at the Fillmore, February 1969
Floating World Records – 2017
A new live release from The Byrds shows a band in fine form at mid-career. “Live at the Fillmore, February 1969” is a good study of a band in transition – from their popular folk rock 60’s sound toward a country-rock style that would be hugely influential for artists who followed.
Less than five years out from their first big hit “Mr Tambourine Man” in 1965, the band was evolving its sound. Late in the decade, they had gone through several personnel changes, and their music was becoming more hard-edged, perhaps a little more cynical, like the decade that wore on. Musically, that’s a major compliment.
Coming soon after the release of their classic “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” this release is much rougher around the edges, perhaps a by-product of frequent touring. The 1969 line-up included mainstay leader Roger McGuinn, ace guitarist Clarence White, bassist John York and drummer Gene Parsons.
Setting the mood for the countrified show, the album opens with the brief instrumental Nashville West. The band then segues right into the George Jones penned You’re Still on My Mind. The tune is loaded with country twang and suitable lyrics.
“The jukebox is playing a honky tonk song
One more I keep saying and then I’ll go home
What good would it do me, I know what I’ll find
An empty bottle, a broken heart, and you’re still on my mind.”
A taste of the classic psychedelic Byrds sound comes in the form of a medley, a popular way of squeezing in fan favourites in the 60’s. Of course, it’s always nice to hear the familiar tunes, but they feel somewhat perfunctory on the album. That said, Turn, Turn, Turn, Mr. Tambourine Man and Eight Miles High are required listening, and the shady hazy transitions between the songs are deliciously cool.
He Was a Friend of Mine must have been played 100 times, but still aches like the painful moment after the Kennedy assassination for which the song was written. … perhaps in part due to the assassination of JFK’s brother Robert, less than a year earlier, as he campaigned for President.
Behind McGuinn and White, both guitars drive a little harder on So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star to make it work like the early classic it is. It’s a little dishevelled, but that’s the way rock and roll is supposed to be.
Time Between is another favourite, with its adorably dated lyrics. The song races ahead, a reminder of 3-minute limits on pay phone calls that used to be the norm.
Don’t say you love me/Don’t say you care/You’re so far away
Telephone communication/Only a three-minute elation
When I hear your voice
King Apathy III further demonstrates Clarence White’s prowess on guitar and explains why he is so revered by Byrds fans. He rocks hard on several solos, dancing along to McGuinn’s inspired lyrics through time changes and harmonic shifts. The tune is a romp, an entertaining “lost classic” from the band.
They close not far from their hippie folk-rock Dylan-esque roots, with a majestic Chimes of Freedom. McGuinn tightens up the vocals, with brilliant fingerpicking as only he can do. It’s a fulfilling end to a concert that may not have been typical in its time but stands as one for the ages.
Serious Byrds fans should definitely check out this release, while those new to the band may want to start out elsewhere, perhaps earlier in their catalogue.