Live Review: Roger McGuinn And Chris Hillman, “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” Tour, New York City, Sept. 23, 2018

To everything there is a season, and the season for 50th Anniversary shows is upon us. On Sunday night at New York City’s Town Hall, it was hats off to Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, celebrating 1968’s Sweetheart Of The Rodeo by their old band, the Byrds. That recording also featured the talents and influence of the late Gram Parsons, so there were lots of country-rock bona fides for Messrs. McGuinn and Hillman to unpack, which they did with the accomplished help of Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives. The evening also served as a virtual primer of Americana, showcasing classics written by McGuinn, Hillman and Parsons as well as Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, Porter Wagoner, Pete Seeger and even Tom Petty.

The band’s first set served as a warm-up to the main event, highlighting the more countrified tunes from the Byrds’ early catalog including Wagoner’s “A Satisfied Mind.” It was a sheer pleasure to watch McGuinn playing electric 12-string and Hillman picking the bass on the opener, Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” Guitars were ringing as McGuinn, Hillman, Stuart, Kenny Vaughn and Chris Scruggs switched up on acoustic, electric and steel guitars, bass and mandolin all night long. The vocal duties were well distributed as McGuinn sang “Mr. Spaceman,” Hillman did “Old John Robertson” and Stuart took the lead on  Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home.” The harmonies were full on with Stuart and drummer Harry Stinson adding the third and fourth voices behind Hillman and McGuinn.

The show was peppered with nostalgia, as Hillman spoke about Parsons and McGuinn recounted their meeting the country-music DJ who provided the inspiration for “Drugstore Truck Driving Man.” After an intermission, the second set began with Stuart’s band doing two songs, “Country Boy Rock And Roll” and “Time Don’ Wait.” It must be said that choosing Stuart and the Superlatives as a backing band was a shrewd move. These cats all can sing and they all can play—and quite well. Vaughn is a true badass guitarist, and Stuart can match him punch for punch. Stuart also dazzled on the mandolin, and bassist Scruggs moved over to pedal steel for most of the Sweetheart segment. It should also be noted that Stuart possesses and plays an original string-bender guitar once owned by late Byrds guitarist Clarence White, and nobody deserves it more than he does.

With McGuinn singing Dylan’s immortal “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” things were off and running. Hillman showed himself to be in great voice with his performance of Parson’s “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years From Now.” McGuinn authentically embraced Louvin Brothers classic “The Christian Life,” as well as William Bell’s plaintive ode “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” After closing out with a sing-a-long reprise of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and a churning “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” the band did a heartfelt mini-tribute to Petty. McGuinn sang “American Girl,” Hillman did his version of “Wildflowers” and Stuart led the band through an acoustic rave-up of “Runnin’ Down A Dream.”

The evening concluded with a ringing version of Seeger’s immortal tune, “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season).” And everybody went home with a satisfied mind.

—Mitch Myers; photo by Jeremy Gordon