Journalism

journalism

Sept. 17, 1997

Mark Guarino | Daily Herald Music Critic

In the distance, fingers faintly danced a jig on banjo strings. The sound grew louder until a man in black stepped from behind the curtain, sat down and said, “My name is Roger McGuinn and I learned to play banjo at the Old Town School of Folk Music.”

Advertising Age couldn’t have drafted a better plug for the famed Chicago institution. McGuinn, former leader of the Byrds, is among the school’s high profile alumni and he was back in town Friday for a benefit concert for the school’s year-old Chicago Folk Center, located on the Near Northwest Side.

Both he and the school are looking good for their age. The  school is enjoying a renaissance at its new location, a former Chicago public library from the ‘20s, which has been refurbished into the city’s most acoustic-perfect venue.

McGuinn still has one of the gentlest voices in rock history.  At 57, he looks about 20 years younger, lean and trim in a black T-shirt and jeans.

He traced his timeline through song. He played several songs  he first heard on the 1952 Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music, the collection that, like the Old Town School, first brought strange backwoods folk music to urban folk. Song like “Sugar Baby”by Dock Boggs and “James Alley Blues”by Richard “Rabbit”Brown were brought to life by McGuinn. He also plugged his Web site, mcguinn.com, that, like the anthology, is cataloging the songs for public domain so they’ll survive into the next century.

Starting with folk’s basic roots was appropriate since McGuinn  did the same at the school until making the revolutionary move to blend it with rock several years later with the Byrds. Much of the songs the band became known for were Bob Dylan covers. Hearing the famous guitar intros of classics such as “Mr. Tambourine Man”and Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”played on his famous 12-string Rickenbacker guitar was chilling.

On some of those songs like “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,”he  invited the audience to provide the songs’famous harmonies. Soon, the 400-plus crowd were in session as Byrds themselves.

McGuinn’s solo career never took off like his bandmate David  Crosby or even posthumously like Gram Parsons. But he did play some of his earlier work from the ‘70s that has stood out, including several songs he penned for the soundtrack to “Easy Rider.”

Starting in the ‘80s, he kept a high profile collaborating  with younger bands, from Tom Petty to Wilco to the Jayhawks, who share the same back-to-basics ethic when it comes to music. It’s easy to see why now he’s become a late blooming icon: Playing the Byrds’song “Eight Miles High,”McGuinn was an astounding player, bringing to the strings both an intensity and playfulness younger players dream about. Good thing he was on a school stage.

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