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Perhaps not everyone loves it
on 31 May 2011
The original two record set attracted the extremes of both high praise and severe criticism on its release. Within the latter there were phrases such as "...probably the most perplexing the Byrds have ever made","a lot of watery music", "stuff that will rank with their best and the born outtakes", "some of it is fantastic, some is very poor or seemingly indifferent", "The songs are unworthy except for..... Chestnut Mare", "harmonies are faint or totally absent" coming from certain very well respected reviewers. The CD release which expanded it to double CD length provided a lot more music and may have helped to lift it to a level such that several current critics rate it as the best late period Byrds album.
The original album comprised a live set over the first slab of vinyl, with "Eight Miles High" taking an entire side, and a studio set on the second disc. One change had happened to the Byrds since "Easy Rider"; Skip Battin had replaced John York on bass. Whether this accounts for the dilution in country content in the studio recordings is pure conjecture. Certainly Battin's attempts at song-writing don't impress this reviewer.
It's very likely that this version of the band was the best ever live - early incarnations didn't always have the greatest reputation for getting up there and doing it. This band had spent a lot of time on the road and it showed. Hence the rationale for devoting an entire disc to live tracks. By and large it works well. "Eight Miles High" is undoubtedly the highlight and probably was the reason for relatively good sales of this album. Most of it is an instrumental jam which stands up well to comparison to epics of this genre such as "Dark Star" from the Dead, those Quicksilver long ones and the Butterfield Band's "East West". After a fade-in, the guitars are rumbling with McGuinn up front first with hints of the theme amongst the improv. - then it's Clarence White showing off his versatility with McGuinn backing - Battin takes over on bass - he does such a good job that the attention doesn't wander for the two minutes plus of his break - then it's Clarence, until, wow, at twelve minutes in and bang on cue, the full band are there on harmony vocals with "Eight Miles Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh, and when we touch down". What a release of tension. The crowd are lapping it up. This version may miss some of the minor seventh chords, or whatever, which gave it a jazzy feel originally but what it may have lost in subtlety it surely makes up in sheer energy. This was the live set closer and they leave the stage to rousing cheers.
The rest of the live set is accomplished. There's still a thrill as the opening Bach inspired guitar intro to "Tambourine Man" rings in the air but the known Byrds numbers suffer somewhat in comparison to the studio versions; Clarence White does have a tendency to add a country flavour to everything he touches which does introduce, not necessarily welcome, variation from one's fond memories. But there's part of me says that Dylan has been wont to perform his classics very differently from their studio versions, and another part that feels that the stateliness and elegance of the Byrds' originals would be very hard to match anyway. There's a new Dylan cover amongst the live set, his put-down song, "Positively Fourth Street". McGuinn matches his sneer pretty well and White's guitar suits the song. Not a bad set overall but, with the exception of "Eight Miles High", one's inclined to comment, "You had to be there". Unfortunately this maxim holds for a lot of live releases though there are notable exceptions.
So, on to the studio tracks, nine in total, a rather miserly slice of vinyl. Several of the songs were written by McGuinn in association with theatre director Jaques Levy originally for an aborted musical based on Ibsen's Peer Gynt. First up is "Chestnut Mare" which is one of those songs. And it's not bad, maybe not a Byrds classic but certainly evocative of earlier (and better?) times. And that's about it. Well, yes there are eight other numbers but none of them really register on first listen. After a few times, numbers such as "Just a Season", "All the Things" and "Yesterday's train" do reveal some pleasures but they're slight. The out takes for the previous album (as revealed by the CD's bonus tracks) are better than this lot.
The generous helping of music on the "Unissued" disc does compensate to a degree for the above. Once again it's divided into studio and live tracks with the studio ones coming first. Whilst not startlingly different the studio tracks do seem a mite more lively than the released tracks. The alternate version of "All the Things" is much fuller instrumentally and, to these ears, much better for it. The alternate of "Yesterday's Train" also seems better though I haven't analysed why. The version here of "Lover of the Bayou" is better than the live one though I'm not so sure about all that echo on Roger's voice. There's a new number, "Kathleen's Song" with our man on very vulnerable vocals, which is at least as good as anything but "Chestnut Mare" on the issued album. This got held over for "Byrdmaniax".
Of the live tracks, three are of existing Byrds' country numbers, "You ain`t goin` nowhere", "Old Blue" and "Jesus is just alright"; two of these were originally from this flavour of the band, or almost this flavour. Hardly surprisingly all three translate well to live versions; the boys relax into them. They're a tad rough on "Jesus..." but I guess that happens at times. Highlight of the live material for me is a cover of Dylan's "It's alright Ma, I'm only bleeding". Dylan virtually spits blood on the original. Roger can't quite go that far but with the aid of a mean harmonica and the full ensemble riffing strongly on the punch line, they create a very effective interpretation. Versions of "Ballad of Easy Rider" and "This wheel's on fire" also deliver well and are very listenable alternatives to the studio versions. Finally there's a bonus, bonus track in a short acappella harmony version of "Amazing Grace". This does make you realise that you've been missing something from the beginning; much of the time the expected harmonies are either not there or are buried well back in the mix.
Which takes me back to the criticism I recorded in my opening para. I think these guys got it spot on. Most of the studio material is almost embarrassingly poor and doesn't even seem to be delivered with much conviction. Conversely on the road they obviously deliver a great show. Some of the live material on the second disc improves on that on the first. Maybe an album consisting only of the live material might have been a better release.
I'm well aware that this review is way out of kilter when compared with others. I guess there's no accounting for taste. I'd be very happy to respond to comments.