It’s unfortunate that Roger McGuin insisted on retaining The Byrds name even after the other founding members had left the group. The “new” Byrds never gained the recognition they deserved, primarily because it appeared they were merely masquerading as poor substitutes for the original band. But they deserved better, being one of the first great “hired gun” bands of the late ’60s.
Those not lucky enough to see the “new” Byrds live during their heyday now have the opportunity to appreciate just how special this amalgamation was.
Thanks to Columbia Legacy’s release of Live at the Filmore – February 1969, we can now hear the Byrds at the height of their creative powers. Recorded February 7-8 at the Fillmore West, it was purely chance that it was recorded at all. The Byrds were the opening act for The Jam, which featured Mike Bloomfield, Nick Gravanites, and Mark Naftalin. Tape rolled just to make sure all the equipment was working!
Clarence White’s reputation has grown to near-mythical proportions in the 27 years since his untimely death. Live at the Fillmore demonstrates this veneration is certainly justified. On “Buckarro” you can hear how he took the honkytonk Telecaster sound of Buck Owens’ guitarist Don Rich and (thanks to the White-Parsons B-bender), goosed it up. It’s the Bakersfield sound augmented by a mescaline suppository.
This live album adds more fuel to rock and roll revisionists (like myself) who feel the “new” Byrds were just as important to the history of rock as the original group. Without White’s pioneering guitar work there might never have been a Roy Buchanan or Junior Brown. Also, could Lou Reed have sold record execs on resurrecting his career through the Rock and Roll Animal tour if Roger McGuinn hadn’t been so successful propping up his own work with the “new” Byrds?
This live CD is not without warts. Every time McGuinn launches into a solo, it’s a graphic example of why some should just play rhythm and leave the solos to professionals. Despite McGuinn’s noodlings, songs like “So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star” still have a special drive and vitality you can only get from a live performance.
The sound on this CD is surprisingly good, considering it was a test tape. Producer Bob Irwin, remix engineers Jen Wyler and Joe Lizzi, and mastering engineer Darcy Poper, did a superb job of making a CD that feels fresh and vibrant even after 30 years in the vault.
Another must-have is the reissue of Untitled, which includes everything from the original release, plus a bonus CD called Unissued. The original was a combination of studio cuts and live selections from a 1970 Madison Square Garden Felt Forum concert. To my ears the live stuff blows away the studio recordings. Here’s additional evidence that the “new” Byrds were a truly outstanding live band.
The second disc includes some gems, along with material that will do little to enhance the Byrds’ reputation. On the negative side of the ledger we have an embarrassingly mediocre version of Lowell George’s “Willin,” along with some other studio floor sweepings like “Lover of the Bayou.” Only the spontaneous studio jam, “White Lightning” has any reason to exist. Once again, the live material, especially “Jesus is Just Alright” and “This Wheel’s on Fire,” elevate this disc from the slag pile to a place reserved for special historical recordings.
The Byrds Live at the Fillmore February 1969 is a superb CD that will give the heart of any fan of rock and roll a reason to fly.
Several other later recordings have also been re-released by Columbia Legacy. ByrdManiax and Further Along are now available on re-mastered CDs. But unless you are some kind of Byrdmanaic, don’t bother.
This review originally appeared in VG‘s June ’00 issue.