Roger McGuinn - guitar, vocals; Clarence White - guitar, mandolin, vocals; Skip Battin - bass, vocals; Gene Parsons - drums, harmonica, vocals
Preparing for the release of a new album and with Roger McGuinn the subject of Rolling Stone magazine's monthly interview, August of 1970 would prove a pivotal time for The Byrds. When many of the band's contemporaries had split up or were nearing the end of their creativity, the double album Untitled would rejuvenate the band's following. Released a month after the Fillmore West set presented here, the album featured both live and studio recordings with all four members contributing material. An extensive touring schedule during this time also helped develop a new legion of fans and The Byrds were finally gaining a deserved reputation as a compelling live band. It is no wonder that this occurred, as Roger McGuinn, Clarence White, Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) and Skip Battin would indeed become the most enduring lineup of The Byrds, performing and recording together from September of 1969 well into 1972. Much credit goes to McGuinn for maintaining a vision for the group and keeping this lineup together, but the secret weapon was guitarist Clarence White. It was White's innovative string bending techniques, combined with McGuinn's signature sound, that extended the band's explorations of country music within a heavier rock framework. White was an utterly unique talent with blazing guitar chops, a razor sharp sound and astounding musical sensibilities. He was equally potent in both acoustic and electric settings and possessed the all-too-rare ability to think of a soulful unified sound. This was a key ingredient to the cohesiveness and strength of The Byrds live performances during this era. They would experience wildly enthusiastic audiences nearly everywhere they played especially in Europe where their popularity had never really waned. The Byrds were one of very few bands capable of forging both a spiritual and musical unity between the two decades and both critics and fans agreed that this lineup was more accomplished in concert than any previous configuration of The Byrds.
Presented here is opening night of a four night engagement at Fillmore West when The Byrds headlined a triple bill that also featured Big Brother & The Holding Company and Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen. This would turn out to be The Byrds' final west coast run for Bill Graham, who would close both Fillmores the following year. With a more discerning audience and often attended by rock music journalists (a primary source of exposure for musicians in the pre-Internet age), playing the Fillmore was a high-profile gig and The Byrds deliver nothing less than their A-game here. This run is also notable for being the first time a true stereo mix was heard at Fillmore West. The band's engineer, Dinky Dawson, persuaded Bill Graham to allow him to set up his own stereo system in front of the house system. This required lugging the massive cabinets up flights of stairs, but it was well worth it. The mix dazzled not only the audience but Bill Graham himself, and many San Francisco musicians in attendance including members of The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. Although the first several songs of the set were not recorded, what was captured conveys this configuration of The Byrds playing both acoustic and electric music and becoming tighter and more focused as the evening progresses. Front man, Roger McGuinn, is deeply engaged throughout this performance, both vocally and as a guitarist and this is one of the better examples of the musical chemistry between these four musicians.
The recording begins with the acoustic portion of the set in progress, beginning with a romp through Leadbelly's cocaine anthem "Take A Whiff On Me," which would feature on the forthcoming album. Sure to dazzle all acoustic guitarists, Clarence White's blazing finger work is showcased next with the traditional fiddle tune "Soldiers Joy" (AKA Black Mountain Rag). Returning to electric instrumentation, the intensity level kicks right up with a truly fiery rendition of "This Wheel's On Fire." This provides a perfect example of what sets this Fillmore West performance apart. Not only does it feature a cool prelude jam leading into the song proper and all four musicians vocally contributing to the choruses, McGuinn is extremely engaged, interjecting spontaneity into his vocal ("Leopard-skin Bob Dylan's suitcase" is one humorous lyric phrase interjection) and both he and White take flight into a sizzling guitar jam midway. Of the many performances of this number presented here at Wolfgang's, this easily ranks as one of the best.
A pair of songs from the iconic "Easy Rider" movie soundtrack are presented next back to back. With Gene Parsons contributing harmonica, they begin with a haunting rendition of Dylan's "Its Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding," Upon the songs conclusion, McGuinn recreates the sound of a motorcycle crash before continuing with a lovely "Ballad Of Easy Rider." This serves as a quieter reflective moment but within the first few seconds of "Jesus Is Just Alright," which follows, the intensity level cranks right back up. They take this song at good clip with Battin and Parsons propelling the action behind McGuinn and White. Another "Gene Tryp" number surfaces next with a fine harmony-laden read of McGuinn's "All The Things," a new ecologically minded composition destined for the Untitled album. Of particular note is Clarence White's highly sensitive guitar playing here, which decorates and compliments McGuinn's vocal on each verse.
The well-balanced nature of Dawson's mix on this show becomes even more apparent through the remainder of this concert, which continues with a performance of the high energy instrumental, "Nashville West." White's electric fingerpicking is absolutely dazzling here and the rhythm section provides outstanding propulsion. Following a quick tune-up, The Byrds head toward the close with their hits medley and this too stands out from other versions from this era. Unlike many of the performances by this configuration of The Byrds, both "Turn Turn Turn" and "Mr. Tambourine Man," which segue one to the other, are not taken at a frantic tempo. Taken at a more moderate clip, both of these classic Byrds hits shine, with the former being a particularly fine example of McGuinn and White's interlocking and complimentary guitar playing. When they transition into the extended "Eight Miles High" jam, the entire group is on fire. Again, what makes this performance stand out is just how engaged McGuinn is here. Unlike most versions of "Eight Miles High" from this era, White, despite playing as great as always, is not the dominating guitar factor here. McGuinn is equally engaged here and wastes little time diving in deep, taking the first extended solo while White supports him with circular riffing. Often content to support White as a rhythm guitarist, the roles are at first reversed here, which makes this performance a very intriguing listen. When White does take over for the second extended solo, the group is in inspired form, which provokes him to soar. White's biting electric tone has rarely sounded better and his use of sustain is extraordinary here sending this performance into the stratosphere. For the next several minutes, they venture deep into psychedelic territory. Eventually, McGuinn and White drop out allowing the rhythm section to solo. Battin and Parson's deliver a tight rhythmic exploration of their own before White and McGuinn begin feeling their way back in and begin maneuvering into "Eight Miles High" proper. McGuinn's, Coltrane-influenced opening riffs signal the transition and they finally segue into the first verse of this legendary song. However, the group is cooking so hard that they blaze right off again, never returning to the lyric. After another minute or two of intense interplay which features White providing ferocious rhythmic elements along with interlocking leads with McGuinn, this "Eight Miles High" jam comes to a crashing close, followed by the band's blues-based signature outro, "Hold It," to conclude the set. This is another fine example of a band giving it only their best effort when playing a Fillmore stage and the recording ends during a well-deserved standing ovation, with the San Francisco audience unison stomping and clapping for more. (Bershaw)