Roger McGuinn’s trademark guitar sound goes before him – at this gig, literally as well as figuratively.
Before we see the man himself, we hear his chiming 12-string Rickenbacker ringing out from backstage at St George’s. No introduction is needed as he strides out front and centre playing Dylan’s My Back Pages.
His Bobness looms large in the story of this founding member of The Byrds, of course, and has been a continual touchstone over the past half century of McGuinn’s career. And it’s hard to argue, too, against Roger being seen as the pre-eminent interpreter of his work.
Pinballing back and forth throughout his last half century, this was a very satisfying setlist which gave us the Byrds hits plus some more novel choices from the road less travelled.
He also treats us to tales of David Crosby, George Harrison, Gene Clark and how The Byrds’ sound was simply “folk put to a Beatle beat” and squarely aimed at hopping aboard the Fab Four gravy train. That sound has now gone on to have a life of its own, though, influencing everyone from Big Star to REM, and The La’s to Teenage Fanclub. Pop has indeed eaten itself.
Although that famous 12-string Rickenbacker pops up intermittently, McGuinn largely concentrates on his seven-string acoustic here. Yes, seven strings – he had an extra string added to make its midtones shimmer even more.
He takes to the acoustic for his two contributions to the Easy Rider soundtrack, or what he describes as “a little low budget biker flick that Peter Fonda put together”, The Ballad of Easy Rider and the country-tinged Wasn’t Born to Follow. Meanwhile, Dylan’s It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) is pure razzle dazzle and buoyed by lightning-sharp fingerpicking and tongue-twisting vocals.
We return to the Rickenbacker for the cute Mr Spaceman and McGuinn follows it with another space rock hippy classic, 5D (Fifth Dimension).
The Byrds never let the grass grow under their feet, continually mutating throughout a varied career. After their psychedelic phase they boldly ‘went country’ as evidenced here by the Woody Guthrie cover Pretty Boy Floyd and Dylan’s You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere – both from the superlative Sweetheart of the Rodeo album where Gram Parsons briefly crossed their paths.
This most low-key of rock icons is essentially a folkie at heart whose fascination with traditional songs remains undimmed. Flitting across genres, McGuinn then treated us to Rock Island Line – which perhaps didn’t have quite the fire and spark of the Lonnie Donegan version we’re most familiar with on this side of the Pond – alongside the much-covered St James Infirmary Blues and The Jolly Roger, the latter inspired by McGuinn spotting a group of local Bristol schoolchildren on ‘Talk Like a Pirate Day’.
We dipped into his solo career for Russian Hill from his 1977 album Thunderbyrd before ending the first half with a copper-bottomed classic, Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. McGuinn was there at the recording, he tells us proudly.
At times, of course, these well-worn stories sound like the talking heads segments from a BBC4 Friday night music documentary, but that’s fine by me. He’s earned it.
The jangling Rickenbacker returns for a stunning So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star while Tom Petty’s American Girl – a Byrds tribute in itself – gets a stylish acoustic makeover.
His ode to The Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips, King of the Hill, is new to me but what follows certainly isn’t. McGuinn may have played Chestnut Mare 1,000 times before but you’d never guess that from the cheer joie de vivre with which he delivers it here tonight. Not even an apparent fireworks display outside can detract from an irresistible goosebump-inducing moment. Absolutely joyous.
We then leave the hits aside for a minute for a sea shanty and a dazzling instrumental which shines a light on his seven-string guitar’s unique sound.
A quick snippet of The Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand is a precursor to The Water is Wide and McGuinn’s early co-write with Gene Clark, You Showed Me, which went on to become one of his most covered songs. I
And what can you say about a closing triple whammy of Mr Tambourine Man (both electric and acoustic versions), Eight Miles High and Turn! Turn! Turn!? These are gilt-edged classics and it was a privilege to see them played at such close quarters. I think the hairs on the back of my neck have only just returned to their natural state.
We’re sent on our way with the lilting Leave Her Johnny and May the Road Rise to Meet You – almost 30 songs in 100 minutes and pretty much all killer and no filler. No rock star posturing or self-indulgence, just a back catalogue full to bursting with tunes that sound as vital now as the day they were minted,
My Back Pages
Ballad of Easy Rider
It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Wasn’t Born to Follow
5D (Fifth Dimension)
Pretty Boy Floyd
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Rock Island Line
St. James Infirmary Blues
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star
King of the Hill
Randy Dandy O!
I Want to Hold Your Hand
The Water Is Wide
You Showed Me
Mr Tambourine Man
Mr Tambourine Man (electric)
Eight Miles High
Turn! Turn! Turn!
Leave Her Johnny Leave Her
May the Road Rise to Meet You
There are worse predicaments for a band to find themselves in than to have released a pair of gilt-edged classics as their first two albums, but for The Felice Brothers it seems to hang rather heavy on their shoulders.
With debut Tonight at the Arizona and their eponymously titled second album they perfectly recreated the sozzled, rough-around-the-edges atmosphere of Dylan’s Basement Tapes and the first few albums of its backing players The Band.
Rightly or wrongly they may feel they’ve been tagged as a good-time party band – all stomping hoedowns and raucous midnight sing-alongs. That’s not entirely unjustified but you get the feeling it’s now irking them a little.
They’ve got a clutch of rollicking tunes in their armoury, but they were rather thin on the ground on a night where they seemed determined to show their artistic scope rather than go for the jugular.
They start strongly with the accordion-wielding James Felice leading a rousing rendition of Woody Guthrie’s Cumberland Gap. Likewise there’s an entertaining fiddle and accordion duel to spice up Lion – a standout from new album Favorite Waitress.
As expected, The Big Surprise artfully teeters on the brink of falling apart at any minute but has now been tweaked to allow lead singer Ian Felice to introduce a few more guitar solos than I recall from previous tours.
There’s a roar of approval for their classic murder ballad Whiskey in my Whiskey while the hearty knees-up of Cherry Licorice shows their new material hasn’t lost that old feisty spark.
It’s at this point though that they rather take their foot off the gas and the gig loses momentum a little.
A misfiring Honda Civic from their inconsistent experimental Celebration, Florida doesn’t quite work and White Limo similarly doesn’t get out of first gear. OK, enough of the lame motoring puns.
The stately ballad Silver in the Shadow comes to life when fiddler Greg Farley grabs a pair of kettle drum mallets and tries to thrash the David Estabrook’s kit through the floor of the Fleece and the reflective Meadow of a Dream is the most successful of the downtempo tunes.
But while they’re proving their delicacy, melodicism and emotional reach, I’d still have preferred them to toss in a T for Texas or Run Chicken Run here in this middle section to pick us all up a tad.
Woman Next Door, Chinatown, Fire at the Pageant and the traditional John Hardy pass by rather unnoticed before we’re treated to the superb Ballad of Lou the Welterweight. “That was worth the price of the ticket alone,” says one punter behind me and he’s not wrong. It’s one of The Felice Brothers’ most striking story songs with all the attention to detail of a Tom Waits classic.
On the flipside here, though, the band are not the type to eternally run through a greatest hits cabaret set and their unpredictability has always been part of their attraction. Surprises like The Osborne Brothers’ Rocky Top are new to me and were hugely enjoyable.
Fan favourite Penn Station plays to their strengths as does the country vamp of Sail Away Ladies.
Of course, they’d never get away without playing their most famous tune, Frankie’s Gun, although they seem to have fallen out of love with it somewhat. They bring the night to an end with the plaintive Marie, a decent but hardly stellar addition to their back catalogue.
Their back catalogue is an embarrassment of riches, but this was a rather wilful setlist which never really recovered from a stodgy middle section. Rather than road-hardened, this most exhilarating of bands actually seemed a little road-weary.
Cumberland Gap (Woody Guthrie cover)
The Big Surprise
Whiskey In My Whiskey
Take This Bread
Silver in the Shadow
Meadow of a Dream
Woman Next Door
Fire at the Pageant
John Hardy (traditional cover)
Ballad of Lou the Welterweight
Rocky Top (The Osborne Brothers cover)
Sail Away Ladies
I’M repeating the words ‘absolute triumph’ as I leave the venue and that’s still rattling around my head the following morning – this show by the reunited Suede was very special indeed.
Of all the Brit rock institutions who’ve reconvened over the past few years, you could argue that it’s this classy Brett Anderson-led five-piece who’ve done it with the most integrity. They’ve succeeded where The Stone Roses, Blur, Pulp and Happy Mondays have come up a little short – it’s a radical concept called ‘releasing a new studio album’.
Bloodsports – which appeared in March – is a defiant new chapter in the band’s history and they’re clearly proud of it, confidently slotting in more than half of it here without any dip in the quality threshold.
They began though with the stately Pantomime Horse and Anderson’s soon on his knees wringing out every drop of emotion from the song. Then it’s straight onto a trio of newbies, the call to arms of Barriers, a rocking Snowblind and an outstanding It Starts and Ends with You which really is as good as anything they’ve put their name to.
By Filmstar, Anderson’s up on the monitors swinging his microphone around like a camp Roger Daltrey and having a ball. Trash prompts a mass singalong while Animal Nitrate and Heroine test the foundations underneath the Academy.
The first break comes nine songs in with the elegiac Sometimes I Feel I’ll Float Away and the brooding Sabotage.
We’re soon back to the more urgent likes of The Drowners and the glam rock riffage of b-side Killing of a Flashboy though. Breathy ballad The 2 of Us gets a rare airing and they follow it with an exhilarating So Young.
Anderson was quite frankly astonishing throughout. Gone are the cut-price Morrisseyisms and arrogance of the early days replaced with a hugely committed performance that completely engaged the audience. He does most of the heavy lifting with the band content to take a back seat. Guitarist Richard Oakes has a few scene-stealing moments but never attempts to share the limelight in the same way that the band’s original axe hero Bernard Butler did.
They’ve still got two of their biggest tunes up their sleeves, too. Oakes finally lets his inner rock monster off the leash for Metal Mickey and Beautiful Ones is quite sublime.
There’s just one song in the encore – New Generation. After all, the job was already done so why labour the point?
Forget about dewy-eyed nostalgia, Suede are very much in the moment. A barnstorming return.
I’VE always been consistent on at least one point - if I’m a fan of the original inspirations behind a band then it follows that I’ll like the amalgam. That holds true for the first time I heard Definitely Maybe back in 1994 containing audacious nods to The Beatles, Sex Pistols and T Rex and it remains with Jonathan Wilson and his clear appropriation of Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Dylan and Dennis Wilson.
Many won’t be able to get past his fanboy tendencies and that’s absolutely fine, I can see their point. But now that the golden era of Laurel Canyon acts are now in their dotage and only occasionally produce anodyne AOR stodge at best, then why not turn to the new breed who can at least conjure up a facsimile of their best work?
Wilson’s now a prime mover and shaker in the LA music scene; something of a linkman between the past and present with his collaborations that have featured new kids on the block like Dawes and the old guard of Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, David Crosby and various members of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers plus the occasional Black Crowe.
His Gentle Spirit debut of 2011 was outstanding despite being hamstrung by the kind of new age hippy dippy album cover that’s ten a penny on Glastonbury High Street. Hpwever, what was contained inside was high grade retro songsmithery and he’s continued it here with its follow-up Fanfare, a much more polished, lush affair.
The langourous string-laden opening title track certainly nods once more at Dennis Wilson’s high watermark on Pacific Ocean Blue until it breaks free with a skronking sax solo that rocks you back on your heels.
The pretty waltz intro of Dear Friend makes way for a blatant pinch from Dark Side of the Moon’s Breathe that’ll certainly give Floyd fans a chuckle in its sheer brazenness. I’m also liking the meandering wah wah solo that kicks it at the three-and-a-half minute mark and takes a full three minutes to resolve itself before moving onto a dramatic transitional section that’ll get you punching the air.
Her Hair is Growing Long opens as a beatific slice of folk whimsy before travelling over the border to South America to take on an almost Samba feel.
The country rock of Love to Love is a smart change of pace and wouldn’t be out of place on Ryan Adams’ Gold album or a previous Whiskeytown record. It’s even got a gratuitous Dylan impersonation on it. Thanks Jonathan.
The ghost of Dennis Wilson shuffles into sight for Future Vision once again before it switches mid-song into a perky keyboard tune complete with nifty studio trickery on some backing vocal swoops and a cracking solo.
We pause for breath on the slide guitar-flecked acoustic track Moses Pain. It’s a little anonymous although the anthemic coda is a nice touch.
Cecil Taylor features a stellar cast on backing vocals including the aforementioned trio of Graham Nash, David Crosby, Jackson Browne plus Father John Misty aka former Fleet Fox J Tillman. Crosby even weighs in with a trademark wordless vocal solo beamed in from his If I Could Only Remember My Name album. Fantastic.
This album’s Neil Young and Crazy Horse tribute comes courtesy of the loping Illumination. I can imagine it being a monster when played live. We’ll see later this year. Desert Trip is pretty piece of folky positive thinking but it’s soon overshadowed by the jazzy soulfulness of Fazon and its gorgeously fat bassline straight out of an early Seventies Marvin Gaye album.
There’s a decidedly Pink Floydish edge once again to the epic ballad Lovestrong, but it’s none the worse for that obviously. I’ll take David Gilmour impersonations all day long. The second half feels like an alternative version of Echoes from 1971’s Meddle.
It’s paired with the downbeat closer All The Way Down, which perhaps is a little too introspective and plodding for its own good.
That’s a small criticism, though, of what is at times an outstanding record. Wilson’s ‘Leader of the Laurel Canyon MkII’ tag is firmly consolidated on Fanfare. Yes, he wears his influences a little too obviously on his sleeve at times but at least he has impeccable taste.
“My parents told me to get a job,” says David Crosby. “My job in this band is to write the weird shit.”
OK, so that’s pretty much the gag that Croz told with old mucker Graham Nash when he last played the Colston Hall two years ago, but when you check out veteran rockers with more than a few miles on the clock, you have to expect a little pre-planned banter.
And if your calling card is a silky smooth three-part vocal harmony blend, it’s also not a given that you can still cut it more than 40 years on. Add to that the fact that Crosby, Stills & Nash have endured countless trials and tribulations in those ensuing decades and you realise that this was by no means the cosy classic rock proposition it might appear at first glance.
The trio do seem like a perfect combination of styles, not just in their vocal blend but in their songwriting. Stephen Stills provides the bluesy Southern rock grit, Nash crafts poppy gems and Crosby, when he can be arsed, is particularly good at the jazzy, expansive “weird shit”.
It’s Stills who faced the biggest challenge here. Various health issues have meant his vocals can now be wayward to say the least. Bizarrely, his falsetto was fine, it’s his mid-range which seemed more unpredictable. His guitar playing, on the other hand, made up for it with several scene-stealing turns.
Despite hoovering up the Gross National Product of Colombia in his darkest days, Crosby’s voice remains a thing of wonder. Nash, too, is in very fine fettle for someone who reminded us that he’s been playing the Colston Hall since his first outings with The Hollies back in 1962.
From 1968 to 1971, pretty much everything CSN touched turned to gold and it’s no surprise to discover vast swathes of this nigh-on three-hour set were mined from this rich seam of material.
They took turns to share the spotlight for an even-handed trio of openers. Stills kicked off with the intricate Carry On/Questions complete with inventive soloing.
They’re still not quite in top gear, though, and Marrakesh Express was a little sluggish as it made its way out of the station. Crosby – officially the most casual man in rock who only takes his hands out of his pockets when he has to play guitar – at least comes in with all guns blazing on a fiery Long Time Gone.
The vocal shortcomings of Stills were once again exposed on Southern Cross but the anthemic chorus got the band across the line.
They also managed to slip in a handful of new songs including Crosby’s Radio – a co-write with his son and keyboard player here James Raymond; Don’t Want Lies from Stills’s recent side project with his blues band The Rides and Nash’s Golden Days. Best of the bunch was the latter’s Burning For The Buddha, a politicised protest song about Tibetan monks.
Nash’s Cathedral – the highlight of a stodgy CSN album from 1977 which had seen them blasted out of the water by punk’s new breed – boasted a suitably hymnal organ intro before Stills returned “to his childhood” for Buffalo Springfield’s Bluebird. To these ears, it seemed a little disjointed as Stills hung on for dear life and threw down some improvised solos. The audience thought differently, though, with many giving him the first standing ovation of the night. That said, I’d put it down more to Springfield-related bon homie than the performance on the night.
Crosby’s Déjà Vu, now a centrepiece of the band’s set, afforded everyone including the five-piece backing band a slice of solo action in the spotlight. It’s also a rather hilarious demonstration of the democratic worthiness of the band as each applauded each other’s contribution like a Kenneth Branagh-style Luvviefest. Crosby, in particular, seems to like pointing a lot.
What a shame that both Love The One You’re With and Helplessly Hoping rather suffered from Stills’s waywardness. At least he did manage to haul it back with Treetop Flyer which proved to be an unexpected highlight.
It’s followed by a stunning one-two punch from Crosby and Nash – the a capella What Are Their Names and a breathtaking Guinnevere where you could hear a pin drop. Those were worth the price of admission alone (well, perhaps not, it was an eye-watering £75 a ticket).
Crosby’s saucy Byrds-era ode to love triangles, Triad, underwent a major funk overhaul – and was by no means as bad as that sounds – before Nash brought a collective tear to our eyes with the well-crafted Our House and Teach Your Children.
Almost Cut My Hair and Wooden Ships upped the ante and were positively scorching. Stills was outstanding on the latter.
The one-song encore knocked it out of the park. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, complete with a nimble fingerpicked snatch of George Harrison’s Within You Without You from Sgt Pepper by Stills on acoustic guitar, was extraordinary.
There are a few rough edges nowadays to CSN for sure, but we’ll forgive them with a collective songbook packed to the gills of such grace and power.