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Sweethearts of the Rodeo become page turner

Theatre at Ace Hotel, Los Angeles, July 25, 2018

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn, two Byrds of an iconic feather, opened this wonderful concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" with Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages." The Dylan cover is not one of the album tracks, but as McGuinn explained, this was a night designed to explore a little musical history. So, to put it into literary terms, the evening was a real page-turner.

Hillman and McGuinn were ably backed by Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives. Some have said Tom Petty's Heartbreakers would have been the best band for this gig, especially after Heartbreakers' guitarist Mike Campbell was a night one special guest. However, Stuart's guitar twang and mandolin touches, Harry Stinson's vocal harmonies and Chris Scruggs' essential steel guitar work proved this was, indeed, the right combo for the job.

These Fabulous Superlatives don't just have the country credentials, though, because when they played their own "Time Don't Wait," with its distinctive Rickenbacker guitar part, they also evidenced a keen knowledge of the Byrds' folk-rock phase, as well.

This special group played "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" in its entirety, beginning with another Dylan cover, "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," and finishing up with "I Am a Pilgrim" before reprising "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" as a Pete Seeger-esque sing-along. Highlights included Hillman's singing of Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind," and the exquisite vocal harmonies during William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water."

The album was recorded in Nashville, but mainstream country radio refused to play this hippie band's music. In retrospect, though, the country establishment got it all wrong. After all, the album also included songs from two country music icons, George Jones ("You're Still on My Mind") and Merle Haggard ("Life in Prison"). The album also covered a wide stylistic range with the inclusion of Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd" and The Louvin Brothers' bluegrass for "The Christian Life."

When the band returned for an encore, the show metamorphized into a kind of mini-Tom Petty tribute. After playing "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," which some may mistakenly think is a Petty song, McGuinn sang "American Girl." Next, Hillman performed a pretty, acoustic "Wildflowers." Then it was Marty Stuart's turn to give us his bluegrass-ed up take on "Running Down a Dream." It amounted to an instance of influences coming full circle, as Petty was obviously strongly inspired by the Byrds, and now these two Byrds were acknowledging Petty's equal greatness.

The group sent the audience home with "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)," one of the Byrds' first big hits. Rather than coming off like an obligatory concert-must-play, these musicians performed the song with heartfelt enthusiasm. The song is truly timeless, which is why it's been covered countless times. And like the song, the Byrds' music is equally timeless.

McGuinn most often tours as a solo act, usually accompanied by little more than his trusty Rickenbacker guitar and tender singing voice. With the highly talented Stuart and band backing him up, though, McGuinn was able to match his distinctive vocal and guitar work with strong supporting cast. Byrds folk-rock songs, in particular, require a full band.

This concert was as close as many longtime Byrds fans will get to witnessing a Byrds reunion concert. The Byrds had a reputation of being an inconsistent live act, even back during its heyday, so this special collaboration may just have been better than the real thing.