By Wes Eichenwald, special to the American-Statesman
In recent years, there probably haven’t been too many reviews of Roger McGuinn’s solo concerts that fail to mention either his age – currently 75 – or the enduring clarity and versatility of his tenor voice, which helped define 1960s commercial folk rock via the Byrds, the group he co-founded in 1964 with Gene Clark and David Crosby.
Dressed largely in black and gray, with a rakishly tilted hat, McGuinn spoke and sung his way through a nearly two-hour account of his six decades in the music world on Saturday at the Paramount Theatre.
Alternately standing and playing, and sitting in a chair amid potted plants, three guitars and a banjo – the instruments seeming as organic in this setting as the plants – McGuinn, in a self-directed interview of sorts, conversed easily about his early life in Chicago, becoming inspired to perform from hearing Elvis on the radio (upon which he sang a few bars of “Heartbreak Hotel”), and spun tales of his eventful life, from his early days with folk groups the Chad Mitchell Trio and the Limeliters and pop singer Bobby Darin to later encounters with Bob Dylan and the Beatles. McGuinn spun a hypnotic mood in his stories-behind-the-songs tour de force, weaving a connecting thread between the likes of “Rock Island Line” and old sea shanties and gospel hymns, through to the Byrds hits “Mr. Spaceman,” “Eight Miles High,” and “Chestnut Mare.”
With the precision of the folk-music archivist he’s been for over 20 years, McGuinn noted that he’d last played the Paramount in May 1991 and said some kind words about the efforts to preserve and maintain beautiful old theaters. McGuinn knows something about historical preservation, archiving a large number of traditional folk songs on the “Folk Den” section of his website and recording a four-CD set from the archive.
If McGuinn was at the right places at the right time to ride the waves from the cresting folk scene at the dawn of the ‘60s through his glory days with the Byrds, he also made clear he was willing to throw twists and turns into his musical career – as when, refusing to have the Byrds be pigeonholed as either folk rock or psychedelic, he related how they went to Nashville in 1968 to record the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album, helping to pioneer country rock in the process.
McGuinn showcased his vocal versatility on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” singing it first much as Dylan did in the original version, then as McGuinn reimagined it with an ear to radio airplay, with the help of Bach and his inner Beatle filter (from the first time he heard the Beatles, McGuinn recognized folk chord changes in the songs and realized the potential of “Beatleizing” songs with folk bones).
The audience of mainly graying baby-boomers ate up McGuinn’s clinic, rising easily for more than one standing ovation. Yet it wasn’t just a nostalgic exercise, it was a compelling journey to the still-beating heart of ‘60s folk, rock, and assorted creative exercises from the mind, throat, and hands of a master musician.