CEDAR RAPIDS - Over the past couple of years, I've reviewed solo concerts by legendary folkies like Arlo Guthrie and Peter Yarrow. As you might expect, those shows featured a combination of much-loved music and wonderful stories from artists who have played with all the heroes of the musical genre. The stories were as central to the shows as the songs.
Roger McGuinn used that same formula Saturday night (7/25/15) at the Paramount Theatre for his solo performance. The co-founder of The Byrds regaled the small but enthusiastic crowd with stories, highlighting his connections with a host of other musicians - Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty, John Phillips, David Crosby and Miles Davis among them - and playing music from throughout his long career.
From a storytelling point of view, what set the 73-year-old McGuinn apart from Guthrie and Yarrow was the concision of his tales. McGuinn has honed his stories to their essentials, so even when they are lengthy, they move right along. He tells them with a naturalness that sounds conversational rather than practiced.
On the musical side, McGuinn is perhaps in better voice than either Guthrie or Yarrow. His voice retains its sweetness, especially in the upper register. He played electric guitar, 12- and 7-string guitar (the latter an instrument of his own design), and banjo with great facility. The set list included all the expected songs: "My Back Pages," "Mr. Spaceman," "Eight Miles High," and "Turn, Turn, Turn." At some moments (much like in Yarrow's performance), we miss the harmonies for which McGuinn's groups are known, but by and large, he convincingly delivered each song on his own.
The highlight was a blend of storytelling and music. McGuinn recounted the circumstances leading up to the signing of The Byrds by Columbia Records. The deal was for one song, and McGuinn explained how Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" became that song. He performed the full song in Dylan's style, explained how The Byrds changed it up and shortened it, and then played his band's version. It was a fascinating history lesson and a strong musical moment.
The performance was marred slightly by technical problems, including right at the top of the show when McGuinn's microphone wasn't hot as he first walked on. A problem with the electric guitar amp halted the show briefly as McGuinn left the stage to try to correct the issue for his performance of "Mr. Spaceman." And for the encore, his mic was hot, but his guitar was absent for the first verse of "Turn, Turn, Turn." McGuinn's calm and good-natured reactions to the problems minimized their impact on the audience experience.