As the lights dim we hear the familiar strains of ‘My Back Pages’ played on a twelve string Rickenbacker, and Roger McGuinn saunters from behind a screen to stand, centre-stage in Sage Gateshead’s wonderfully intimate Hall Two.
Tonight (and most nights I suspect) Roger is the man in black. Black hat obscuring (if still present) the fringe famously immortalised in song by Edwyn Collins, black leather waistcoat, black trousers and black cowboy boots. Only Roger’s shirt lets the dark combo down, being, I strongly suspect, charcoal grey.
Perched for most of the night on a piano stool, Roger turns out to be a jovial and informative host, never afraid to drop the odd “Bob said to me” or “I asked Joni” or a tale from The Rolling Thunder tour into the conversation like it was the most natural thing in the world. And for Roger, of course, it is.
We’re treated to ‘You ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’, Roger admirably admitting to misinterpreting the words for years, only realising his mistake when he saw the correct words on a teleprompter screen at an event to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary as a Columbia Records recording artist. ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ from Sweetheart of the Rodeo is introduced as being “as far away from Psychedelic as we could get”.
‘The Ballad of Easy Rider’ is ushered in with sweeping understatement as “a song written for a low-budget motorcycle movie” and a fantastic version of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ closes the first set.
Roger and his Rickenbacker reappear twenty minutes later to the familiar tune of ‘So you Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’. During this second set Roger tells us about his friendship with Tom Petty, which he illustrates by way of a reverent re-reading of one of Tom’s very finest tunes, ‘American Girl’ followed by ‘King of the Hill’ which Roger and Tom wrote for Roger’s 1991 album Back From Rio.
We then hear about Roger’s love for the legendary ‘Chestnut Mare’, the sentiment of which has always made me feel just a little bit queasy and at this point we’re warmly introduced to his seven string ‘Roger McGuinn HD-7’ Martin guitar. We’re then quickly swept back to Roger’s early career as a Brill building writer working for Bobby Darin with ‘Beach Ball’ recorded by The City Surfers. It was fascinating to hear how Roger, still known as Jim in those days, met Gene Clark and how together they wrote ‘You Showed Me’ which later became a hit for The Turtles. He introduced David Crosby into the picture with “one day a chubby little guy walked in” which seemed just a little harsh to me! We also hear how they originally planned to stride out into the world with the name of The Burds, before someone wisely suggested that The Byrds may be a better idea.
But the best responses of the night were understandably reserved for the best known tunes, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (“a one single deal with Columbia”), ‘Eight Miles High’ which we are again assured was really just about travelling in an aeroplane and ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ the latter of which formed the high point of a relatively low-key three song encore.
At which stage, Roger leaves the hall to warm enthusiastic applause, Rickenbacker clasped firmly in hand.
Reviewer: Neil Pace
Photographer: John Jobling