There Is A Season

The Byrds

Forty-some years since they first entered pop music’s consciousness, the Byrds continue to marvel and amaze a large contingency of curious fans and enthusiasts. To stir the pot up, There Is A Season, an all encompassing four-CD/bonus DVD box set has been rolled off the assembly line, 14 years after the first Byrds box set, conveniently out of print. With There Is A Season very much in print, Byrd watchers will salivate at the crisp, sonically charged mix of 99 studio and live tracks (including five previously unreleased songs) spanning the band’s entire run and subsequent reunions, neatly packaged in a stylish, bold red box. If there ever was a season for the Byrds, now is the time.

The set lifts off with early demos from the Jet Set and Beefeaters, early incarnations of the Byrds, before morphing into the full display of the group’s ineffable Midas touch. Once they blossomed into Dylan hitmakers, beginning with their first Number One “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the inimitable brand of jangling rock was rigidly defined and simply irresistible. Other Dylan gems like “All I Really I Want To Do,” “Chimes Of Freedom,” “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and “My Back Pages” would, via a 12-string Rickenbacker and those sugary sweet harmonies, turned the Bard and the Byrds into a serious threat to the oncoming British Invasion. But that was only the half of it.

Gene Clark’s “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” “Here Without You,” and “If You’re Gone,” along with Roger McGuinn’s “Mr. Spaceman,” and group efforts like “Eight Miles High,” “So You Want To Be A Rock N’ Roll Star,” and dozens of others all validated a talent to craft hook-ladened tunes, as well as perform and sing them. Taking the complete package into account, one can’t help but notice an incandescent beauty in the way each and every number was molded and shaped into a tight-fisted pop nugget ready to explode on impact. It was simply too good to last.

Through all the various alterations the Byrds experienced — Clark’s resignation in 1966 due to a fear of flying, David Crosby’s firing the following year, drummer Michael Clarke’s departure a month later, the addition of Gram Parsons, followed by bluegrass guitarist Clarence White, a reunion of the original five, and an ongoing adaptation of any number of diverse musical disciplines — McGuinn remained the singular constant to the cause. The guitarist, whose practice of wearing tinted granny glasses distinguished him as someone quintessentially hip, attempted to reinvent the Byrds more times than he probably cares to remember. The results, while not as commercially successful as the heady days of the mid 60s, were never boring or predictable. So while the first two discs capture the Byrds at the height of their popularity; discs three and four take the listener through more scenic territory.

In 1968, McGuinn and bassist Chris Hillman — the remaining founding members — recruited Parsons and went to Nashville to record the Byrd’s sixth album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, an album often credited with the birth of country rock. Several songs from the sessions made the cut on the box set’s third disc, including versions of “The Christian Life” and “You Don’t Miss Your Water” with Parsons’ original vocal track (which also appeared on the previous box set, as well as an expanded reissue of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo). After Parsons and Hillman left to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, McGuinn reorganized the Byrds with White, drummer Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) and bassist John York — a line-up that would outlast all the others. Returning to an edgier attack with dashes of country flavoring, an alternate version of Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire” may lack the vocal power of Clark and Crosby, but McGuinn, whose thin voice practically demands accompaniment, does a commendable job leading the way. From the traditional strains of “Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man” and “Tulsa County” to the countrified rock of “Candy,” “Jesus Is Just Alright,” and a good chunk of the live material from 1969-70, the set effectively covers an elusive, yet productive stage in the band’s career.

Even as the salad days passed, McGuinn managed to stay one step ahead of the competition. A live reading of his “Ballad of Easy Rider,” with a first verse supposedly scribbled down by Dylan, skips rope without missing a beat. An acoustically based, gospel-flavored shakedown dominates much of the live material and select tracks from Byrdmaniax and Farther Along. But it’s the reunion material that properly reels things into perspective. Clark’s “Full Circle” and “Changing Heart” from 1973 almost sound forced in their effort to resurrect the glory days. “Paths Of Glory,” from the 1990 box set, goes one better, jingling its way to a closed door on one of the few American bands who ever challenged the popularity of the Beatles.

The bonus DVD gives the box set a suitable kick in the keester. Ten lip syncing appearances from the golden years, taken from shows like Top Of The Pops and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, provides the listener with a visual reference of who did what in the Byrds. Watching Gene Clark tap the tambourine and shake the maracas makes his contributions seem minimal despite the fact that he was the strongest singer and songwriter of the bunch. Once he was gone, the Byrds changed their flight plan and could have landed with a big thud. The irony is that “Mr. Spaceman,” the final clip and only performance in color, features Clark, who had already tendered his resignation, sitting in on guitar for the recently dismissed Crosby. The pull of the Byrds was seemingly overpowering.

In addition to the CDs and DVD, there’s the obligatory booklet, filled with extensive liner notes and photos. You can sit down, soak up the written contributions from Tom Petty, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, and Rolling Stone contributor David Fricke, flip through the pictures of various band member combinations, pick up tidbits and other details on each song, load up the five-disc changer, press play, and float back in time for a few hours. Spending an evening with the Byrds isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do, but There Is A Season makes it a worthwhile experience everyone should try at least once.

~ Shawn Perry

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