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Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise

By Gene Hyde

MARCH 28, 2000: 

The Byrds Live at The Fillmore -- February 1969 and (Untitled)/(Unissued) (Columbia/Legacy)

As a creative entity on the American rock scene, the Byrds were one of the major forces in the mid-to-late Sixties. Co-founded by Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and others, the band found its initial success as folk-rockers. Filled with talented individuals, creative differences led to frequent personnel turnovers, with McGuinn remaining the constant. As people came and went, the band delved into psychedelia and pure rock, then took a country turn when Gram Parsons joined for Sweetheart of the Rodeo. By 1968, bluegrass guitarist Clarence White had joined with Roger McGuinn, and the two formed the nucleus of the band until its demise in 1972.

Columbia's latest journey into the Byrds archives unearths two fine discs from the McGuinn/White era. The Byrds Live at The Fillmore -- February 1969 is a previously unreleased live set, while (Untitled)/(Unissued) is the cleverly titled, two-disc reissue of the 1970 studio/live double LP that bore the infamously unimaginative moniker: (Untitled). This new reissue includes an entire disc of previously unreleased live and studio material.

Recorded several days after the release of Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde, Live at The Fillmore is a potent testament to the guitar talents of Clarence White. The tunes stick pretty much to the arrangements found on the records and include material from Dr. Byrds ("Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man," and the chord-grinding "King Apathy III"), as well as their country-rock classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo, along with a smattering of earlier hits.

Clarence White's guitar work is astounding: With just a few solo measures per song, his precise attack adds crunch to the rockers and authoritative twang and bite to the numerous country tunes. White had invented a device that bent the strings to emulate the twang of a pedal steel and applied this to great effect. This pairing of White's muscular guitar with McGuinn's lively, signature Rickenbacker playing gave the Byrds, especially live, a distinctive sound. Listening to White's command of the fretboard, it's a shame to consider that he died in 1973 at age 29, killed by a drunk driver.

Prior to this new release of Live at The Fillmore, the only official live recording of the band was found on one album of the two-LP set, (Untitled), released in September 1970. (Untitled) is rightfully considered the last great Byrds album. The band released two more albums, Byrdmaniax and Farther Along, which have also been recently reissued. Both of these document a band in creative decline that suffered from inconsistent songwriting (among other faults) and are the weakest albums in the Byrds catalog. (Untitled) was their final important creative statement.

Fronted by the dynamic guitars of White and McGuinn, the live portion of (Untitled) opens with the gritty "Lover of the Bayou," followed by blistering versions of several hits, while finally stretching out on an improvised 16-minute workout of "Eight Miles High."

"Lover of the Bayou" was one of a series of collaborations between McGuinn and Jacques Levy, whose resume includes co-writing the songs on Bob Dylan's Desire. McGuinn and Levy had been working on an adaptation of Ibsen's Peer Gynt entitled Gene Tryp, a curious musical set in America at the time of the Civil War. Although they never staged Gene Tryp, a wealth of tunes emerged from their efforts, including the strikingly original equine mini-suite "Chestnut Mare" and the poignant, lyrically elegant "All the Things." In addition to the McGuinn/Levy selections, the studio disc also includes the funky ecological plea "Hungry Planet," bassist Skip Battin's pedal steel-laced Buddhist tract "Yesterday's Train," and Leadbelly's whimsical cocaine ditty, "Take a Whiff on Me."

The (Unissued) disc is filled with alternate studio takes from the LP, including a version of "All The Things" that's superior to the original. The live material, all dating from 1970, includes a handful of Dylan songs plus versions of "Jesus Is Just Alright" and "Ballad of Easy Rider." The (Unissued) disc's music is consistently high-quality material, while extensive liner notes and song-by-song annotations add another dimension to this excellent reissue.

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