Roger McGuinn doesn’t need a book deal. He writes his autobiography on stage with his all-encompassing “Songs and Stories With …” tour. And hearing the man speak and sing about his incredible life and career is much more illuminating than reading about it anyway.
Beating Springsteen on Broadway to the punch by some three decades, McGuinn brought his latest tour to Newark, Ohio’s Midland Theatre Aug. 22 and regaled the enthusiastic, three-quarters house for nearly two hours across two generous sets. It’s a continuation of a thread running back at least to the middle-1990s, when McGuinn put on a similar program at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
The jangle of McGuinn’s electric guitar playing the Byrds’ arrangement of “My Back Pages” – “My ‘My Way,’” he called it – announced McGuinn as he walked on stage, stepped to a mic and began to sing. At 81, McGuinn’s voice betrayed some fragility, but he still plays and sings like a Byrd.
After the opener, McGuinn, dressed in all black save for a red feather in his fedora, took a seat and, surrounded by a banjo, 12- and six-string acoustic guitars, his trusty electric Rickenbacker and tropical plants, proceeded to tell his life’s story. Spinning his yarn with the arc of a book, McGuinn began with his childhood in Chicago where he first heard “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Be-Bop-A-Lula” – snippets of which he played – before he went to the Old Town School of Folk Music and got turned on to Bob Gibson and Lead Belly, leading to full versions of “Daddy Roll ’Em” and “On Easter Morn’ He Rose.”
A teenaged McGuinn then met Pete Seeger, from whom he learned “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” played on electric, and “Rolling Down to Old Maui,” rendered acoustically. He was hired by the Limeliters, met David Crosby in California and Joan Baez (“Virgin Mary”) in New York. He traveled to South America and was inspired to write what would become the bridge of “Chestnut Mare” while sitting on a cliff. He then went to work for Bobby Darin in Las Vegas – McGuinn was present when Darin discovered Wayne Newton. This was all before McGuinn encountered Peter Fonda, which prompted “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” the lyrics to which were delivered to McGuinn by Fonda on a holy-grail napkin on which Bob Dylan had scribbled the words.
“Give this to McGuinn,” the Bard reportedly said, “he’ll know what to do with it.”
McGuinn wrapped the first set with “I Wasn’t Born to Follow” and “Mr. Spaceman.” He opened set two the way he’d started the gig, with the sounds of “So You Want to be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star” announcing his return to the stage and “Lover of the Bayou” following. And despite any wear and tear on his vocal cords, the McGuinn of 2023 is smoother than the hoarse McGuinn of 1970’s (Untitled).
From here, McGuinn’s storytelling turned nonlinear as he talked about his friendship with Tom Petty (“King of the Hill”); an impromptu tour of Europe with him and Dylan (a singalong “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” represented this); and the shenanigans of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder trek. It was here that McGuinn got permission to record Joni Mitchell’s “Dreamland,” also performed, and was inspired to write “Jolly Roger,” ditto, by the pirate-like nature of the cross-country escapade in a retrofitted Greyhound bus borrowed from Frank Zappa
McGuinn plucked the banjo on “Old Blue” and recalled working in the Brill Building and nicking the Beach Boys to write and record “Beach Ball” with the the City Surfers – “the shortest-lived act in show business,” McGuinn said – featuring the Bee Gees on background vocals. He then went on to explain how the Byrds ripped off the Beatles not only in choosing their moniker but by taking the latter’s idea of using folk chords in rock music and – sampling “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to demonstrate – as inspiration for creating folk-rock with songs like “The Water is Wide” and “You Showed Me.”
The Byrd was as enthusiastic as a young child with a new toy when he talked about reconnecting with Crosby and joining forces with Gene Clark, Michael Clarke and Chris Hillman; meeting the Beatles and the Stones in England; and serving as the opening act for Hoyt Axton, whose mother wrote the aforementioned “Heartbreak Hotel,” thus bringing the story full circle.
The set proper closed with McGuinn showing off his substantial lead-guitar chops on a lengthy acoustic rendering of “Eight Miles High,” before he walked off without a word. He walked back on without a word, preceded again by the telltale jangle, and performed “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” “She Don’t Care about Time” and “May the Road Rise to Meet You” while standing at the off-center mic.
Covering all or segments of 30 songs and featuring many more engrossing stories, “Songs and Stories with Roger McGuinn” was like a getting-to-know-you session for 900 people, all of whom surely left with even more reverance for the folk-rock pioneer than they had when they’d arrived.