By TOM CHESEK
By the time he and his fellow Byrds flocked out of the West to take up guitars against the Brit invaders of the mid 1960s, he was already a young veteran in granny glasses; a creature of the jug-band hootenanny scene (Chad Mitchell Trio, The Limeliters) who made Dylan and Seeger’s songs sing to a transistor-radio pop audience…who was present at the creation of the modern country rock movement…and who blazed new trails through a rare virtuosity and pure love of music.
Get Roger McGuinn started on his experiences in the big-time music business, however, and he’ll tell you that “it was always the commerce guys who had all the real fun.”
More than fifty years since he and Byrdmates David Crosby and Gene Clark topped the charts with hits like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “My Back Pages” — electrified folk tunes defined by the signature jingle-jangle of the 12-string — the 75 year old singer-songwriter and folk-roots archivist originally known as Jim McGuinn is the one having fun; having the time of his life actually, taking his joy of playing and his encyclopedic catalog of American music to multi-generational live audiences.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer whose jet-setting tour schedule inspired the trippy psychedelic classic “Eight Miles High” has ditched the airport lifestyle in favor of a WiFi-equipped van these days, but his standing as a musical traveler remains road-tested and true. It’s a road that’s taken him repeatedly to the Shore area, where the “Easy Rider” has cultivated a formidable following courtesy of numerous visits to Monmouth University.
On Wednesday, April 25, the vaunted van snakes its way through the West Long Branch campus for the (????) time, as the Pollak Theatre hosts Roger McGuinn in a solo acoustic concert. Set to get underway at 8 p.m., the event showcases a performer who’s deeply rooted in American musical tradition, while standing as a passionate advocate for do-it-yourself technology and peer-to-peer musician communities. A firm believer in the transcendent power of old-fashioned live performance, and a man who doesn’t mind telling you about the 6.4 kilowatt solar panel system he installed in his home. A man who looks both forward and back. “So much older then,” as they say, “and younger than that now.”
“I’ve done ‘em all; Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall…and I’m pretty sure I played Convention Hall,” says McGuinn of the time-loop that often finds him intersecting with audience members that first caught his act in the mod-threads era of the mid 1960s. “We’ve played all kinds of different venues, from 300 to 2500 people — I actually don’t like them so big, because of the time shift …the amount of time it takes for something to register with people all the way in the back of the room.”
In setting up his Jersey Shore base of operations at the Pollak, McGuinn has made himself at home inside a room that’s become one of the area’s best for unplugged entertainments; having hosted acoustic acts that range from veterans Peter Yarrow and Arlo Guthrie, to next-generation guitar stars Toshi Reagon and Kaki King, plus intimate musical projects by actor Jeff Daniels and Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.
It’s an environment that promises to bring out the best in solo acoustic re-imaginings of familiar Byrds classics from “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” and “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star,” to “Mr. Spaceman” and “Chestnut Mare.” There are later milestones like the 1979 McGuinn Clark & Hillman hit “Don’t You Write Her Off Like That,” plus tributes to favorites that range from Leadbelly to Joni Mitchell to The Turtles. All in a night’s work for an eclectic player whose resume spans both Bobby Darin and Bobby Dylan…all of it underscored with fascinating backstories of the selected songs, and a frankly awesome facility that can transform a full-band rock classic like “Eight Miles” into a one-man tour de force.
That lone-wolf work ethic extends to McGuinn’s home recording studio output as well, with the artist maintaining that “the old business model was for the band to get a million dollar advance from the record company, and then spend the rest of their career paying it back to them. Now you can get a MacBook and ProTools and do it all yourself.”
As evidence, witness the crowning achievement of the veteran’s latter-day career — “The Folk Den Project,” a four-disc, 100-song set that draws from a fairly awesome portfolio of traditional songs uploaded to McGuinn’s website.
“There are times when a ‘live-in-studio’ project is just what’s needed for a certain song,” he says. “But these days, the studio is like paper…in that paper is a dying medium. They should outlaw paper.”
Way to hurt the feelings of a hard-working correspondent for the local weekly intelligencer…still, all is forgiven when it comes to the easy rapport that the legendary troubador brings to his interactions with the audience — as well as with the Center for the Arts program at Monmouth; a long-running partnership that’s seen McGuinn conduct Guitar Circle workshops for the public, lecture the school’s students on the ins and outs of the music business (“I have no sympathy for the recording industry — no recompense for the wicked”), and help the program inaugurate its yearly tradition of autographed-guitar raffles.
Tickets for Wednesday’s concert are priced at $25 and $35, with a Gold Circle seating option of $50, and can be reserved through the Monmouth University Performing Arts Box Office at 732-263-6889, or online at www.monmouth.edu/arts. While you’re there, check out the details on a special June 7 event that brings McGuinn’s fellow former Byrd David Crosby to the Pollak Theatre, for his first solo concert appearance on the MU campus.