Live Review

'Sweetheart Of The Rodeo' Still Kicking At 50

Roger McGuinn Chris Hillman Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives on September 18, 2018

Photo courtesy of The Egg Performing Arts Center

Artists taking a record they made 50 years ago out on the road today, even those as revered as Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, could be taking a risk. No matter how iconic the record, even a classic like Sweetheart of the Rodeo could come across at best as a nostalgia trip. But any such misgivings were completely put to rest when these two Byrds founders, along with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, recently hit The Egg Performing Arts Center in Albany, NY.

The two-set show was more than just a tribute to Sweetheart, considered to be the first fusion of country with rock, it was a tribute to the entire Byrds sound. McGuinn and Hillman gave a sprightly, engaging performance, and including Marty Stuart was a stroke of genius. Not only did he he and his band add the necessary support but they gave the Byrds "sound" an added freshness. Performing their own material and an encore devoted to Tom Petty just underlined the reach of The Byrds’ influence.

Sweetheart was the work of many others; for a start it probably would not have happened without Gram Parsons. The album featured some of country music’s greats as well as Bob Dylan. McGuinn and Hillman gave all due recognition. And this is what made the show so memorable. They didn’t just play Sweetheart but they put it into context with a first set of songs that predated its release. In so doing McGuinn and Hillman explained their various influences and collaborations punctuated with some priceless anecdotes, not dissimilar to McGuinn’s solo acoustic shows of a few years ago.

Applause as they took the stage was warm and welcoming, not hero worship but more like greeting old friends. And old friends these are; they’ve been part of our lives for over half a century! McGuinn wore his trademark fedora, Hillman had an almost professorial look, leaving Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives to provide the rhinestones and big hats.

There could be only one opening song, "My Back Pages." “Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now” set the evening up perfectly. To show Stuart was not there as support, he took the lead vocal on "Satisfied Mind." Hearing "Mr Spaceman" was a reminder of Sweetheart’s change of direction. McGuinn’s jangling Rickenbacker sent this audience into orbit. He and Hillman took turns in introducing the songs. Hillman took us back to some characters of his childhood, the idea behind "Old John Robertson." Here Stuart reminded us of his impeccable bluegrass upbringing with his mandolin accompaniment.

McGuinn and Hillman also acknowledged the gathering influences on The Byrds; for example The Beatles for "Time Between." They also talked about those they had met whose songs they covered, including Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s "Wasn’t Born to Follow." Its lyrics about the hippie lifestyle were in sharp contrast to the country world.

They had the audience in stitches when recounting their interview with the Nashville DJ who made very clear they would not feature on his country music show. Their response was "Drug Store Truck Driving Man," who “... sure does think different from the records he plays.” The first set closed with "Mr Tambourine Man," preceded by the equally amusing account of how they had to cut down Dylan’s nearly five minute version to 2 minutes 30 seconds if they were to get radio airtime. Anyway, according to Crosby it was “too raw.”

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives opened the second set on their own. With "Country Boy Rock & Roll" and "Time Don’t Wait" they proved their high reputation as a live act. Throughout the show they swapped instruments to the point it was hard to work out who played what.

Then it was Sweetheart of the Rodeo in its entirety. McGuinn and Hillman of course saluted Gram Parsons, paraphrasing what he had said to Rolling Stone at the time: “Gram’s bag is country and we’re going to let him do his thing.” In terms of writing these were "Hickory Wind" and "One Hundred Years From Now," but the Louvin Brothers’ "The Christian Life" was very much his idea too. They also highlighted their respect for the great country artists: Merle Haggard for "Life in Prison," Luke McDaniel’s "You’re Still On My Mind." Hillman went back to his roots playing mandolin on "I am a Pilgrim." The Superlatives were just that; Chris Scruggs took to upright bass on "Pretty Boy Floyd," one of the album’s best arranged songs, then played sublime pedal steel on the soulful "You Don’t Miss Your Water." With Kenny Vaughan's guitar and Harry Stinson on drums they injected a tightness that gave the whole performance a solid core.

Dylan remerged with the album’s more contemporary links, this time with the two tracks from The Basement Tapes made with The Band: "Nothing Was Delivered" and the opener and refrain "You Ain't Goin’ Nowhere." The audience was very much part of this great performance but Hillman made sure it ended that way by encouraging all to join in at the end. He need hardly have asked. The Egg almost cracked.

Tom Petty was a friend, collaborator, and one whose sound drew on The Byrds. So it was both fitting and touching that the encore should include two of his songs: "Wildflowers" and "Runnin’ Down a Dream." McGuinn quipped that the third encore is often attributed to Petty, "So You Want to be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star."

Just as the opening song was almost predestined, there could only be one final encore; Pete Seeger's "Turn!, Turn!,Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)." The Byrds may be long gone, but those on stage are going strong and that song is for evermore.

This was the Sweetheart of the Rodeo’s 50 year anniversary tour. But it was far more than a tribute to that one record. The show was a reminder of everything The Byrds have done, their roots and influences. It also showed another band at the top of their game: Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. Finally they also remembered another great musician, Tom Petty. That was a lot for one show, but they did it in style and it was a privilege to have been with them in that lovely auditorium.