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Old times, fresh tunes from Hillman, McEuen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Lynn Goldsmith Special to The Aspen Times
ALL |

ASPEN ” A few days before Chris Hillman and John McEuen’s Saturday night appearance at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, I mentioned the concert to a co-worker. His response: “Oh, those old guys?”

Well, yes. It is a characterization that the musicians seem to have bought into: The references to age ” loss of memory, the old days and just how long ago they were, the ongoing banter with a younger fella in the front row who didn’t recognize the songs played and the people mentioned ” flowed nonstop from the Wheeler stage.

If the purpose of all this old-timer chat from Hillman (age 64) and McEuen (63) ” and Herb Pedersen (64), who, accompanying Hillman, stuck mainly to guitar and vocals ” was to cause the audience to make artistic allowances, it was unnecessary. The crowd was largely of a similar age, and thus naturally inclined to forgive a forgotten line, a botched lick, a shortage of stamina. Also, they would probably have been content to hear even more stories from bygone days, when Hillman was making hits with the Byrds, and McEuen and his mates in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were helping to put Aspen on the pop-music map by making extended visits here.



But mostly, the getting-old jokes were needless because Hillman and McEuen don’t sound like old guys. Hillman ” who was the bassist in the original Byrds, and not a principal singer ” revealed a sure voice with no tarnish on it. McEuen is a marvel on several instruments, but especially on the banjo, which got most of his attention. The combined strengths came together fully on the old traditional “Little Birdie,” with Hillman and Pedersen both hitting ” and sustaining ” an impressive high note, and McEuen contributing banjo riffs that had little to do with old-timey music.

The freshness of the music doesn’t mean that all nostalgia was left aside. Hillman in particular has a long-ago vibe to his personality; it was he who led the group sing-along on Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” But it is doesn’t come across as a yearning for his glory days. Hillman entered the Byrds as a traditionalist bluegrass mandolin player, and the Wheeler show stems more from that piece of his history. The playing was all acoustic, even on rearranged Byrds tunes like “Eight Miles High” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and many of the songs, like “I Am a Pilgrim” and “Soldier’s Joy,” predated the ’60s. In all of these, Hillman revealed himself not as a virtuoso, but as a thoughtfully melodic mandolinist.




For dazzling virtuosity, there was McEuen’s opening set. A superb guitar duo with his son Nathan seemed influenced by jam-band aesthetics; a classical piece for solo banjo was gorgeous. The story song “The Mountain Whippoorwill” was simply long ” but it should probably be taken as a positive sign that McEuen remembered all the words.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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