THE BYRDS: LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL (1971/2008)
1) Lover Of The Bayou; 2) You Ain't Going Nowhere; 3) Truck Stop Girl; 4) My Back Pages; 5) Baby, What You Want Me To Do; 6) Jamaica Say You Will; 7) Black Mountain Rag/Soldier's Joy; 8) Mr. Tambourine Man; 9) Pretty Boy Floyd; 10) Take A Whiff; 11) Chestnut Mare; 12) Jesus Is Just Alright; 13) Eight Miles High; 14) So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star; 15) Mr. Spaceman; 16) I Trust; 17) Nashville West; 18) Roll Over Beethoven; 19) Amazing Grace.
Okay, this is no live masterpiece, either, but third time around, they finally got it close to right. This archival release, coming out of the vaults more than 35 years after the original recording was made, has some obvious advantages over both Untitled and Fillmore, to emerge as arguably the single best live document of the Clarence White era — if you still needed convincing that they were a fun live band, and the Albert Hall show still does not convince you, there's probably no hope left for the future.
First, it is much longer than both of these, which is a good thing because it allows them to concentrate on pretty much every side of their legacy — folk, country, psychedelia, rock, «Americana» in general, whatever. It is well-structured, with a «breather» all-acoustic section in the middle and a couple proper encores. It does not rely too heavily on new material, with only a couple (good) songs from Byrdmaniax and only three (decent) songs from Untitled. And, most importantly, it reflects a three-year gestation period, meaning that the band had gained quite a bit of muscle since the somewhat insecure beginnings of the Fillmore days.
In particular, this 18-minute version of ʻEight Miles Highʼ (more accurately, ʻImprovisational Variations Around The Theme Of ʻEight Miles Highʼʼ, since the song itself is played for about two minutes only) is much tighter and, I would say, comprehensible than the jam captured on Untitled. If the early McGuinn/White interplay seemed to lack self-assurance and was more like "okay, everybody's doing it, let's try this too and see where it gets us", by 1971, having done it many times over, they sound like they already know the main directions and use the jam as a polygon for testing and expanding the individual players' skills — in particular, the bit where the guitarists go take a smoke and the Battin/Parsons rhythm section stays behind and experiments with key and tempo changes is really quite exciting, as Battin seems to go through every basic rhythm pattern in existence (jazz, blues, boogie, pop, you name it).
The originals still suffer from being too ragged and «earthy» compared to the ethereal studio versions, and McGuinn does not even begin to strive for the same fluidity, precision of phrasing, and tonal beauty that he seemed to so effortlessly achieve in the studio. But this is at least partially compensated for by the increased tightness and energy of the rhythm section and the ever more fluent guitar interplay, and besides, individual weaknesses and elements of sloppiness are not so painful when you look at the whole thing as one complex — there's so much collective goodness here that an occasional vocal flub in ʻMy Back Pagesʼ is negligible. And the decision to revert ʻMr. Tambourine Manʼ to its acoustic roots, playing it close to the way Dylan did in 1964, actually works well in concert, where the heavenly effect of the studio 12-string jangle multiplied by immaculate harmonies would have been irreproduceable anyway.
In this context, I do not find the strength to protest even again the inclusion of ʻRoll Over Beethovenʼ — a song that was clearly not made with The Byrds in mind, but is still forgivable given the mighty eclectic nature of the show. I mean, they stick it in between a hot-pants rendition of ʻNashville Westʼ and a devoted accappella walk through ʻAmazing Graceʼ, so it's goddamn symbolic — «we're gonna finish off this show for you as hillbillies, rockers, and soulmen». With a little more sense of humor, a little more polish, and a little more energy in the right places they could have turned the show into an unforgettable celebration of both the Byrds' individual legacy and American popular music in general. And, well, it doesn't get quite that high, but they were on the right track.
Who knows, maybe a couple more years of obsessive touring and they'd finally nail it down to perfection... then again, they still wouldn't be able to compete with The Band, who had the advantage of cutting their teeth on classic Dylan tours, fighting off Judasmongers and stuff. But in any case, these 77 minutes are impressive, except you really have to take it all in without a break and disregard the individual scars, seams, and pimples. Thumbs up without any future regrets, I hope.