LIVE: “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” 50th Anniversary Tour @ The Egg, 8/18/18
Review by Dan Hogan
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
In my science fiction world, tribute bands and concerts are the time machines that take us back to our youth. Using songs, memorable songs, the machine goes into your ears and turns back the years. Last week on Tuesday night, you could feel The Egg break free of its gantry and rocket into space on a two-hour trip to Planet ’60s. If you closed your eyes, you could remember things longs forgotten, a feeling, a place, the sounds and smells of that time you first heard The Byrds singing Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” through the tiny speaker of a transistor radio on WKBW 1520 on the AM dial.
Then you open your eyes.
Senior citizens surround you, and you are one of them! The realization that you may never see a show like this hits you. Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman are living history. Old storytellers with enough life left to go across the country and use their songs to look back on 60 years of making music will be on stage tonight. They will intersect with Bob Dylan, the Beatles and on this night, Gram Parsons and Clarence White. The sold-out and enthusiastic audience (surprisingly, the only empty seats were in the orchestra pit – what a shame) hung on every word, and sang along with many familiar songs.
Kicking off with Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” Marty Stuart’s band the Fabulous Superlatives came on stage first with the band members dressed in Nudie suits followed by a similarly attired Hillman, and last came McGuinn wearing a hipster’s black suit, black t-shirt and black fedora. Not seen were his rose-colored granny glasses that started a sunglasses craze in the 1960s.
Hillman’s voice is still pure and clear, and Roger McGuinn’s is still instantly recognizable, but the best voices of the night belonged to Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives’ drummer Harry Stinson. Stuart’s vocal on Porter Waggoner’s “A Satisfied Mind,” was excellent and strong. His manner also showed he is enjoying himself leading the back-up band through this historic songbook that mixed country, rock and psychedelic music.
Hillman and McGuinn were uplifted by the great band and took time to tell stories about their pre-Sweetheart career and songs – including “Hey, Mr. Spaceman,” “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” (with an excellent backstory about Nashville DJ Ralph Emery being the inspiration for the song) and, of course, “Mr. Tambourine Man” to end the first set.
While it was great to hear those hits, Hillman’s story and wonderful singing of the lesser-known Byrds song “Old John Robertson,” was the highlight of the first set.
The second set was the play-through of the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, and it was great from start to finish, but here again, Marty Stuart and his aptly named Fabulous Superlatives band pretty much stole the show with their two tunes that opened the second set. “Country Boy Rock and Roll” and “Time Don’t Wait” were my highlights of the night. Stuart’s voice, as mentioned earlier, was the best of any on the stage that night. Add to that his mastery of the B-Bender Telecaster (playing Clarence White’s guitar, the first ever Parsons/White string bender made, I do believe) allowing Stuart to play faux pedal steel licks all night, and he certainly lived up to Clarence White’s recorded legacy. Stuart also played mandolin and acoustic guitar. In a night where the stage was filled with stringed instruments, he was the master.
Stuart’s band featuring Kenny Vaughan (guitar, 12-string guitar, bass, vocals), Chris Scruggs (electric and stand-up bass, acoustic and steel guitar) and singing drummer Harry Stinson were both fabulous and superlative.
The band then got into the Sweetheart album and talked about how they went from putting their musical feet into country music before going whole hog once they met Gram Parsons. As much as they talked about Parsons and his contribution, it was his absence that was felt the most this night. The rendering of “Hickory Wind” didn’t match the story about The Byrds playing the Grand Old Opry and Parsons calling an audible to substitute this for one of the songs they were scheduled to play. In one of the rare missteps of night, Scruggs came in too loud and overpowering on the steel guitar intro, and as nice as Chris Hillman’s voice sounds, it missed the mark here and caused a slight ripple in my time/space continuum.
Things were much better on the other Parsons song “One Hundred Years from Now,” which was the best of the songs from the album presented on Tuesday. Hillman’s voice was beautiful, and what he’s lost in strength was made up with clarity and control.
“The Christian Life,” started with McGuinn saying he didn’t understand this song at the time but he does now, as they went into a faithful cover of the Louvin Bothers song.
The rest of the songs, including the George Jones’ cover “You’re Still on My Mind,” William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and Bob Dylan and the Band’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” were wonderful and brought together the past (McGuinn and Hillman), the present (Marty Stuart) and the future (the Fabulous Superlatives) to end the set and bring the house to their feet for a strong ovation.
The band came back and dedicated their encore to the late Tom Petty, who had worked with Chris Hillman on his last album. It was a stirring tribute starting with the McGuinn song “So You Wanna Be A Rock N Roll Star” (which Petty had covered), followed by “American Girl” (a Petty song McGuinn had covered) to an excellent cover of “Wildflowers” that brought the whole band to the front of the stage to sing and play along. This was followed by an incendiary version of Petty’s “Running Down a Dream” that featured a Stuart solo on the mandolin that had more to do with Eddie Van Halen than Bill Monroe. It was amazing.
The ensemble ended the night with “Turn, Turn, Turn,” Pete Seeger’s version of the Book of Ecclesiastes. With that the time machine landed, and we disembarked from spaceship Egg past the far-too-expensive T-shirts ($40! making me think we landed in the future for a minute) out to the Plaza having had a fine trip.