MONTREAL - Seeing the avuncular, easygoing figure telling stories and playing some tunes you just might remember at the Corona Virgin Mobile Theatre Wednesday night, it was all too easy to forget for a moment how Roger McGuinn, as the leader of the Byrds, did far more than most to change the musical language of rock.
Much has been written on how far the Byrds advanced the plot in the `60s (including an essay I wrote for a series on the artists who wrote the book of rock). Accordingly, the case need not be re-argued here. In fact, let's just say there is no appeal.
So it was almost surreal to see a smiling McGuinn, alone on stage, kicking off this year's edition of the Folk Festival on the Canal by leading a polite, seated audience - mostly made up of boomer folkies and rockers - in song. "What's he the head of?," McGuinn asked during the chorus of Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man. And what could be stranger than everyone responding by sweetly singing "He's the head of the Ku Klux Klan"? Or trying, at the chief Byrd's request, to master the one and one-two claps in Old Blue, which he played on banjo? Or providing, on cue, the teenage-girl screams during the break in the acerbic So You Want to Be a Rock n' Roll Star?
It was game-changing music recast as campfire singalong.
But cheapen the oeuvre? Not a chance.
If anything, the electric, magical communal experience shared in the room, as McGuinn played both non-negotiable classics and deep-catalogue delights, was precisely the proof of how enduring and meaningful his work has been.
In spite of the fact that no one could possibly count how many times he has played Mr. Tambourine Man, the thrill of its 1965 arrival could be felt close to 50 years later in the ghostly chime of McGuinn's resigned return to it. The ringing opening chords of Turn! Turn! Turn! still make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. The stately psychedelia of 5D (Fifth Dimension) has lost none of its beauty. And even with its acoustic flamenco makeover, Eight MIles High remains a gripping musical journey.
In a generous concert that clocked in at about 100 minutes, not including a brief intermission,, McGuinn also gave the audience opportunities to discover or rediscover less easily-remembered gems from his work, like the haunting Russian Hill, the rock n' roll sea shanty Jolly Roger, a breathtaking You Showed Me and Just a Season, a highlight of the evening that found McGuinn dropping his usual high tenor for a few lines, to great effect.
Not surprisingly, the man behind the monthly Folk Den podcast also reached way back for seasoning. Pretty Saro, St. James Infirmary Blues, Rock Island Line, Randy Dandy Oh and The Water Is Wide took their place in a set list that was virtually flawless.
The storytelling - and there was plenty of it - was icing on the cake. Diehard fans would know the story of how Bob Dylan fired the first salvo in the writing of The Ballad of Easy Rider, or the way five very different personalities came to make up the Byrds, for example, but McGuinn's gentle, self-deprecating delivery made all the tales fresh and fascinating.
Alternating between acoustic 7-string guitar, banjo, acoustic 12-string and the trusty trademark 12-string electric Rickenbacker, McGuinn missed few of the high points. To flip through those back pages with him was a rare privilege.
1. My Back Pages
2. The Ballad of Easy Rider
3. Mr. Spaceman
4. Pretty Boy Floyd
5. You Ain?t Goin? Nowhere
6. Drug Store Truck Drivin? Man
7. Old Blue
8. Pretty Saro
9. St. James Infirmary Blues
10. Rock Island Line
11. 5D (Fifth Dimension)
12. Russian Hill
13. Parade of Lost Dreams
14. Don?t You Write Her Off
15. Lover of the Bayou
16. Chestnut Mare
17. I Wanna Grow Up To Be a Politician
18. Just a Season
19. Jolly Roger
20. Randy Dandy Oh
21. Grapes of Wrath
22. The Water Is Wide
23. You Showed Me
24. Eight Miles High
25. Turn! Turn! Turn!
26. So You Want To Be a Rock n? Roll Star
27. Knockin? On Heaven?s Door
The sixth annual Folk Festival on the Canal continues Thursday with Tim O?Brien at the Georges-Vanier Cultural Centre, Friday with the Travelin? McCourys the Corona Virgin Mobile Theatre and Saturday and Sunday with free performances, including Old Man Luedecke and the Sadies, at Ilot Charlevoix. Go to montrealfolkfest.com for further information.