Roger McGuinn gave an altogether remarkable performance at the Vergennes Opera House on May 16th. In approximately an hour and a half on the homey stage‚ the cofounder of The Byrds recounted his personal and professional career‚ and at the same time demonstrated how he integrated his deeply rooted folk influences with the electric sounds that gained him membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

McGuinn did all this without making overt statements or indulging in undue theatrics. Granted‚ to hear the softly chiming twelve-string guitar sound moments before he strode unobtrusively onstage carried its share of drama‚ but it was understated except for the implicit emphasis he gave the refrain of Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages": "…I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now…." Even with no harmonizing with him‚ McGuinn's sole voice shimmered in a high tenor‚ much like the notes that rippled from the familiar-sounding electric instrument.
In turn ingratiating‚ self-deprecating and solemn‚ McGuinn also exhibited the practiced musicianship of a man playing professionally since his teens. No guitar hero to be sure‚ (and there was no lead guitarist in The Byrds till the late Clarence White) his Rickenbacker drew some measure of awe from the reserved sell-out audience whenever he reached for the instrument.
But the fact of the matter is that‚ while three-fourths of his set was comprised of Byrds songs‚ fully the same percentage found McGuinn playing acoustic guitar‚ in either seven (!) or twelve-string design. Hearing him play "5D" on the former illustrated how natural a progression it was to move to rock and roll back in the mid-'60s when he began to work with the late Gene Clark (whose "It Won't Be Wrong" was one segment of a multi-part encore) and David Crosby (to whom he referred a couple times facetiously during the course of the evening).

What McGuinn didn't say was often as telling as what he did. With no mention of Gram Parsons' participation in the Byrds' groundbreaking country album Sweetheart of the Rodeo‚ he nevertheless reminded how timely and topical the best of folk music always has been: playing Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd‚" the lines "…You'll never see an outlaw take a family from their home…' echoed of the housing predicament in America arising from the country's current economic crisis.

One of a small handful of banjo tunes‚ "I Wanna Grow Up to be a Politician" followed McGuinn's reference to the silly season of presidential campaigning‚ but he struck a more somber note when he played The Byrds' homage to JFK‚ "He Was a Friend of Mine." Yet what was ultimately most riveting to an audience at first seemingly timid in their responses -- but palpably awed as the evening progressed-- was the intensity of McGuinn's playing.
Mention of his days with Bobby Darin commanding him to play faster and faster presaged repeated exhibitions of technical prowess (you never missed a backing band!). His deft chording of Joni Mitchell's "Dreamland" revealed the idiosyncrasies of the song(writer) and demonstrations of McGuinn's skill‚ which reached a pinnacle in the speedy finesse within his rendition of "Eight Miles High": the combination of turns‚ runs and bent notes conjured up as much or more mystery as The Byrds' original studio recording or the extended workouts the latter day lineup would stretch to fifteen-minutes plus.

McGuinn's early comments on the venue as a longtime home to vaudeville‚ notwithstanding his own presentation‚ was something of a self-contained story that reached its logical‚ though not at all predictable‚ conclusion with another Dylan number. "Chimes of Freedom" hearkened in its own way to the boyish ingénue that was so evident in McGuinn's words‚ his dignified demeanor and the bounce in his step on the stage (though it belied the suave appearance of his goatee and fedora worn at a jaunty angle).
Such vivacity became muffled by the less than imaginative chord progression and strained lyrics of an environmentally themed tune that lacked the warmth of its corollary‚ a song co-written with McGuinn's spouse‚ that served as a combination blessing and adieu to the audience. The sentiment of "May the Road Rise to Meet You" was no doubt reciprocal as the audience moved into the warm spring night.