30 Years Out: The Byrds, Houston 1969-1977

Gene Clark, left, and Roger McGuinn at the Texas Opry House, 1977

The first time I saw The Byrds was in 1969, as part of this package called the Rock Jubilee.  In the months after Woodstock, everybody wanted to be a part of the rock festival “experience.”  Promoters noticed something in the air, and it wasn’t the odor of pot and unwashed bodies. They smelled money.  So they put on this Rock Jubilee in the Sam Houston Coliseum, which was basically a rodeo arena.  Even though it was an indoor rock “festival, ” the lineup was excellent — Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, The Byrds, Poco.  It was my very first rock concert.

In the Byrds, Roger McGuinn was the only holdout from the original group.  The rest of the group was Roger’s late 60s lineup, featuring flatpickin’ genius Clarence White.  They did their country-fied stuff like “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and relegated their hits to a terse medley.  “Eight Miles High” got an extended psychedelic jam treatment.  The rest of the night was OK, I do recall they turned on the lights in the middle of the Airplane’s set because they went past a 10 p.m curfew. Whatever.

Anyway, cut to 1977, and Roger McGuinn’s coming back to Houston, this time with Gene Clark at the Texas Opry House.  The Opry House, located on Richmond Avenue, was an old drug store converted into a dancehall/concert venue and was the site of many good ol’ times in the 1970s.  The ex-Byrds were doing an acoustic show, later to become known as “unplugged.”

And what a revelation: Gene Clark was still, years later, one of the finest singers I’ve ever heard.  His little spotlights were brilliant, including “Tried So Hard,” his anthem that would be covered by many other groups including the Flying Burrito Brothers.  “Train Leaves Here This Morning,” another of his songs, survived its 1972 mauling on the Eagles debut album; Clark’s version is of course definitive.  When he and McGuinn blended their voices in harmony, it was the true heart of the Byrds that I really hadn’t seen in the Coliseum back in ’69, the heart of a great American band. 

McGuinn had the lion’s share of the songs I’d heard before: “Chestnut Mare,” a perfunctory run-through of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and of course, “You Ain’ t Goin’ Nowhere.”  But my hands-down favorite of the night was “Ballad of Easy Rider,” the cosmic road song that ends the landmark movie.  It’s a search for freedom, from someone who has endured some hard-earned truths along the road and is setting out to discover what freedom is all about.  It is one of those rare songs still as timely today as it was four decades ago.  

MP3: Tried So Hard

MP3: Ballad Of Easy Rider (live)

Roger McGuinn’s official web site 


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