It’s a good bet the patrons that packed the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center Monday night to hear Roger McGuinn perform had nostalgia in mind. To that end, the featured artist for the 900th taping of “The WoodSongs Old-Time Hour” did not disappoint. But McGuinn’s sense of nostalgia differed somewhat from what many in the audience likely envisioned.
Instead of relying on his esteemed history as guitarist, mainstay member and principal composer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame troupe The Byrds, McGuinn took a journey into a deeper and more personal past. As has been his mission for the past two decades, he devoted much of his nine-song set to traditional folk songs, the kind that inspired him long before The Byrds took flight. But instead of a late 1950s/early 1960s student of music passed down by the likes of Bob Gibson and others, McGuinn is now an elder scholar and preservationist, having recorded numerous volumes of traditional songs in an effort to keep the form alive.
Likewise, pop audiences may musically identify with McGuinn through the 12 string electric Richenbacker guitar sound that helped define the rock, psychedelic and, eventually, country paths The Byrds followed. Monday, though, he brought songs like “Well, Well, Well,” a lightning paced “Rock Island Line” and a variety of sea shanties highlighted by “Leave Her, Johnny” to life on a unique 7 string acoustic guitar that proved very serviceable as a rhythmic device as well as, in the few times the music called for it (a suitably blues-driven “St James Infirmary,” being one), a distinctive lead instrument.
As a vocalist, McGuinn can’t help but show his years. His higher register has become more reedy and frail – an inevitability, one supposes, of age (he turned 75 earlier this month). But the traditional material wasn’t always in need of spit and polish. “The Preacher and the Bear,” for instance, seemed to thrive with a tone that was conversationally whimsical with instrumentation (in this case, 5 string banjo) that was as credibly rustic as the singing.
Outside of the new original composition “Edge of Water,” which was largely indistinguishable from the traditional shanties in the set, McGuinn exited his folk turf only twice. In both cases, it was to acknowledge briefly the legacy of The Byrds with involving, warm-hearted readings of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “My Back Pages.”
The latter, one of many Bob Dylan songs popularized by the band, seemed quite telling of the present day McGuinn, especially in a chorus that viewed age and maturity in purely figurative terms. “I was so much older then,” the chorus went. “I’m younger than that now.”