THE BYRDS: LIVE AT THE FILLMORE (1969/2000)
1) Nashville West; 2) You're Still On My Mind; 3) Pretty Boy Floyd; 4) Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man; 5) Medley: Turn! Turn! Turn! / Mr. Tambourine Man / Eight Miles High; 6) Close Up The Honky Tonks; 7) Buckaroo; 8) The Christian Life; 9) Time Between; 10) King Apathy III; 11) Bad Night At The Whiskey; 12) This Wheel's On Fire; 13) Sing Me Back Home; 14) So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star; 15) He Was A Friend Of Mine; 16) Chimes Of Freedom.
In the case of The Byrds, the vault-emptying ritual has largely focused on the Clarence White era, particularly when it comes to live albums — the original Byrds were never appreciated much for their live playing, not to mention that they fell apart just prior to the era of the first quality recordings of live shows. However, the decision to open the vaults with this particular recording, taped at two shows from the Fillmore West on February 7-8, 1969, is still questionable. The new Byrds were just getting their stuff together: Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde had only been released one week before, and not only does this mean that you are going to have to sit through quite a few mediocre songs from that album, but it also means that everything else is happening in «test» stage.
For instance, ʻEight Miles Highʼ, although already a couple minutes longer than the original, has not yet been expanded to the mammoth psychedelic heights of the Untitled era — instead, it is included here as part of a frickin' medley, into which they have compressed three of their biggest hits. The trick is a well-known cop-out: "we have no interest in playing these songs any more, but out of a sense of loyalty, we're giving you a taste" — and, honestly, they'd do better to leave out ʻTurn! Turn! Turn!ʼ and ʻMr. Tambourine Manʼ of this altogether, because the harmonies on those songs just flat out suck. Admittedly, the instrumental passages on ʻEight Miles Highʼ are handled much better, with White already an accomplished sparring partner for McGuinn.
Overall, the setlist predictably concentrates on material from Dr. Byrds and from Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, with the addition of a few extra country covers (Red Simpson's ʻClose Up The Honky Tonksʼ, Merle Haggard's ʻSing Me Back Homeʼ, Buck Owens' ʻBuckarooʼ) and everything else basically just played «for the old fans». This is in stark contrast with the live material they'd soon record for Untitled, which included only one pure country number and observed a better balance between new and «classic» songs, so you have to be mentally prepared for the fact that these Fillmore Byrds are shining knights of the Country Rock Order through and through.
Arguably the one thing that is most typical and representative of the album is Clarence White's manner of playing country melodies — with a device called the Stringbender that he invented with Gene Parsons, enabling him to play a regular electric Telecaster similarly to a pedal steel guitar. This does bring a whole new twist to the idea of «country rock», and gives all these instrumentals like ʻNashville Westʼ and ʻBuckarooʼ a unique face — otherwise, we'd probably just ask "so why do we have to listen to the Byrds doing this stuff, when it would make so much more sense to just bring in the regular Nashville guard?" However, I would also insist that true pedal steel gives a much prettier sound than a regular electric guitar made to sound like a pedal steel; there's just something about this imitation that throws me off (actually, a lot of situations where instrument A is forced to sound closer to instrument B throw me off, but maybe it's just me).
Still, it is a fact that White's guitar playing is pretty much the only argument why you'd ever feel tempted to give this another spin — in no other respect do these performances even come close to matching the originals in clarity or emotional impact. Whenever he takes a seriously focused solo, even on so-so material like ʻBad Night At The Whiskeyʼ, the playing is clearly inspired (unfortunately, he does that on less than half of the tracks), and even if that country style of his may seem a bit monotonous, it also provides unity for all content — old classics, new originals, and cover material. Just forget about The Byrds as one of America's (formerly) greatest vocal harmony bands, and you'll be fine for a while.