Live at the Fillmore -- February 1969
Take a spin or two through the latest batch of Byrds reissues offered by Legacy, and you'll soon figure out that the late Sixties and early Seventies were not kind to the band, which went from defining the country-rock aesthetic to floundering amid a drug-soaked blur of desultory albums. Only those with a chronic addiction to Roger McGuinn's earnest vocals or the sound of hippie-rock twang need to bother with (Untitled), Byrdmaniax, and Farther Along. Although reissued in sterling fidelity, they remain uniformly dull, unredeemed by the addition of disposable outtakes and alternate versions. The discs chronicle this once-vital band's sad artistic demise: Just as the country-rock hybrid the Byrds introduced with 1968's brilliant Sweetheart of the Rodeo begot the likes of Poco and the Eagles, the Byrds themselves degenerated into bland self-parody. Even the ever-present Dylan covers failed to the hit the mark, a red flag considering what the group once did with "Mr. Tambourine Man," "My Back Pages," and "Chimes of Freedom."
It's no surprise, then, that the previously unreleased Live at the Fillmore -- February 1969, is such a colossal bomb. Whether McGuinn was stoned or just bored is anyone's guess, but he sounds utterly hapless throughout this 50-minute set, reaching painfully for notes completely beyond his range and tossing out lines with a disturbing lack of passion or interest. The material here from the then-new Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde (arguably the band's last worthwhile piece of work) is flat and lifeless, even the lyrically scathing "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man," McGuinn's attack on Nashville disc jockey Ralph Emery, a hippie-hating conservative who made it a habit of lambasting the Byrds on his radio show. "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Turn! Turn! Turn!," and "Eight Miles High" are pulled together in a rush-job medley, and the myriad honky-tonk covers suffer from McGuinn's weak pipes and a nodding rhythm section bereft of any force or power.
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If there's any reason this live dud was pulled from the vaults, it's the terrific guitar work of Clarence White, the young country upstart who graced Byrds classics such as Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and salvaged even the worst material from Dr. Byrds and Ballad of Easy Rider. Throughout Live at the Fillmore White soars, as if he knows he must carry his limp bandmates. And he does, wonderfully, with string-bending pyrotechnics and lovely little fills worthy of the finest Nashville sessioneers and great enough to make this otherwise useless album worth at least a listen. -- John Floyd