Saturday, May 06, 2017

A charming and magical evening with Roger McGuinn

It's funny how things go around. When Sam was one month old we were at Auckland airport seeing my mother off on a flight. This guy, with a distinctively US accent just asks out of nowhere "How old's the baby?". I tell him Sam's a month old and ask where he's from. He says "From Los Angeles, but we're flying to Sydney". I say -- because I had already bought a front row seat ticket -- "Oh what a shame you're not staying on a little longer, cos next week a fabulous Los Angeles band is playing here; the Byrd's are doing a show". He replies "I know, we're them" as he gestured with a hand. I looked in the direction of the hand and immediately registered Chris Hillman. But I hadn't recognised the speaker, which puzzled me. I wondered in an instant, silently, is he road crew? So I said "I'm Colin". He said "I'm George Grantham, from Poco, drumming for them on this tour". I said "Hey, Poco, Richie Furay's band". He says, "Yes". It was all family: After all: Souther Hillman Furay. Why *wouldn't* Poco's drummer be playing with the Byrds on a short tour?

"C'mon over", says George, "come say hello to the boys". So we did. They all looked tired and like they wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. Notwithstanding, Roger McGuinn not only said hello, but sounded like he meant it.

I stored that away. That, and the fact that while he had his own project in mind he put that to one side to let a precocious upstart called Gram Parsons call the bigger shots on what the test of time allowed decades later to be recognised as one of the landmark albums of all time: "Sweetheart of the Rodeo". The music ruled, the music was bigger than the individual ego. It's true, ask Keef.

In short, Roger McGuinn is someone I have always loved as a favourite favourite musician. The real deal. A good man. I just kind of knew it.

A year or so back Michele was coming back from the airport with Caesar, the man with the limo she always uses. This night Caesar asks if it's OK to double up because someone is going nearby. Michele is fine with that. The fellow traveller turned out to be Warren Zanes, a one time muso whose band once opened for Tom Petty. More recently, Mr Zanes has written a superb biography of Tom Petty, amongst doing many other good things around the world of rock music. I read the book at home in Mexico. At one point I was much taken by a story about Petty once berating a record company official for giving McGuinn a lousy song to record. Good stuff, I thought.

Then I thought "But hang on a minute here, I wonder if Roger McGuinn is still playing gigs". It's easy to get out of some loops when living a full life in Mexico. I did the google thing, and to my unspeakable delight quickly discovered that he was playing a concert on 4 May within a few short miles of our place in New Jersey. Michele found tickets and a couple of nights ago we grabbed a diner meal and walked across the road to the venue.

The show began, as scheduled, at 7.30pm. Just after we'd bought the CD and DVD version of what was to be in store. Good call. For the next 2 hours and some, punctuated by just a brief intermission, we were treated to an illustrated partial biography of the musical life and times of Roger McGuinn: from his early guitar and banjo lessons at the Old Town music school in Chicago and his first work with the Limelighters, to his current work in American folk music preservation. There were short demonstrations of guitar picking styles, accounts of how Byrds' versions of other people's songs were put together, memories of moments shared with peers and friends that were part of shaping a musical heritage. It was beautiful.

One of the first things I noticed about his Martin 6 string guitar was that he had modified it in the exact same way that my long time ago friend, Jae Renaut, had modified his Martin -- which my friend Jean and I bought a long time ago, and which stayed with Jean as her treasured lifelong guitar companion. The procedure involved inserting an extra string -- a high G -- alongside the conventional G. My eyes fixed on the guitar and I was telling Michele in whispers between songs how I'd only ever seen one other Martin guitar that had been modified that way. I had barely finished relating that resonance when McGuinn wove the story of the signature McGuinn Martin 7 string into his evening's narrative.

In the days and weeks leading up to the show I found myself wondering how he was going to do the show, since it looked like it was going to be a solo gig in an intimate venue. Would he perform "Chestnut Mare"? Surely not, because just how could he do *that* solo. That and other mysteries were all explained. He did what, for me, ahead of the show, seemed beyond daungting. He did it with ease. From start to finish it was somewhere north of sublime. My cup overflowed.

I'd taken a camera thinking I could get some photos without using the flash. But we were told before the show, no photographing; no recording; all phones to be off throughout. And then came the magic words: "But you can take photos in the encore". I thought "how perfect and how fair". Just like that "hello" at the airport so many years earlier, there'd be something precious to be had from a musician with a bankable sense of proportion.

And, as luck would have it, having bought the CD/DVD pack before the show, I was able to get the last poster of the close up photo of the man's face when the show was done. The perfect finale to a perfect evening.

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