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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Byrds Turn On the Old Memory Machine

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Times Pop Music Critic

Byrds watchers certainly got their memories’ worth Wednesday night at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.

The brief, three-city Byrds mini-reunion tour--which concludes tonight at the sold-out Ventura Theatre in Ventura--was prompted more by legal reasons than sentimental ones.

Three of the original members--Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman--are doing the shows to establish their legal right to the group name, thus preventing anyone else (including other original members, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke) from calling themselves the Byrds.

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Once they took the stage, however, McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman were enthusiastic musicians, not legal strategists, and it was hard to imagine anyone who was ever touched by the Byrds’ music not being moved.

In their first formal concert appearance together in 15 years, the threesome (backed by drummer Steve Duncan and guitarist John Jorgenson from Hillman’s Desert Rose Band) played with a spirit and desire that kept the evening from turning into merely a casual exercise in nostalgia.

The material ranged from endearing versions of some of the Byrds’ most famous numbers--from Bob Dylan songs such as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “My Back Pages” to such originals as “Mr. Spaceman” and “Eight Miles High.”

In between, McGuinn and Crosby--especially--reminisced good-naturedly about the old days, including how they happened to write or record some of the key numbers, Crosby admitting he hated “Mr. Tambourine Man” the first time he heard it.

Though the Byrds have often been saluted for their musical innovations (the wonderfully appealing, guitar-accented blend of country, folk and rock strains), the musicians also played a major role in the ‘60s in making rock ‘n’ roll safe for serious themes.

For the most part, they leaned toward material that deserved to be called artful--though no one at the time took rock seriously enough to even think of applying that term to anything that appeared on a 45-rpm single.

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Nearly three decades later, the songs--which reflect on personal and social concerns--take on an even more poignant and graceful ring for longtime Byrds fans, because they can be viewed in the wider context of changes in both the fans’ lives and in the lives of the musicians themselves.

Consider “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the group’s first (1965) hit:

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me

I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me

In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.

It’s easy to see now that the Byrds were pop tambourine men themselves. The guitars had a jingle-jangle flavor, and there was a sense of adventure in the songs and in the disarming harmonies that made the Byrds seem to be leading you on a journey as magical at times as the one offered by the Beatles.

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But it was equally affecting Wednesday to hear the trio sing “Chimes of Freedom,” another Dylan song from the Byrds’ first album:

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed

For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse

An’ for every hung-up per s on in the whole wide universe

... we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Unlike the youthful optimism of “Tambourine Man,” this song is a salute to survival--a tune that seemed a fitting tribute to the way McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman have survived with their musical integrity and determination intact.

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McGuinn was the primary force behind the Byrds, and he led the band with distinction until 1973, bringing in worthy new musicians (including Clarence White and Gram Parsons) to replace those who had left. After the Byrds, Hillman went on to be a valuable figure in several other teamings, including the Flying Burrito Brothers and, now, Desert Rose.

Crosby has probably enjoyed the most success (as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and notoriety (the much publicized drug-related personal problems that landed him in a Texas prison a few years ago). He has rebounded in recent months with a new CSNY album, an acclaimed autobiography and a solo album that is due to be released at the end of the month.

For Gary Bagnall, 31, seeing them together again was a dream come true.

“The Byrds were just a generation ahead of me,” said the Costa Mesa animal importer before the concert. “I’ve always loved their music, but I never saw them live and I didn’t think they’d ever get together again. So, I couldn’t believe it when I saw the ad. I went straight to the phone to make reservations.”

Mark Cobb, 34, San Clemente, was especially eager to see Crosby, whom he sees as an inspiring survivor.

“I like the Byrds music, but Crosby is special. . . . It’s an inspiration to see how he has pulled himself out of all that.”

After the concert, the musicians seemed equally excited.

“It felt great,” said McGuinn, standing in the club’s upstairs dressing room. “We only had one day’s rehearsal and you never know how it’s going to be. You can’t assume it’s going to sound good just because it did years ago. But it felt right almost immediately.”

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Added Crosby, “We came off the stage laughing and hugging each other. When we got together (for a 15-minute set last summer) at the Wiltern Theatre, it made me realize how much fun it is to sing with these guys.”

They haven’t thought about more than this week’s three shows, but Crosby and McGuinn seemed so enthused by the concert that they weren’t ruling out doing additional dates.

One additional appearance is certain.

Because the debut album was released 25 years ago, the Byrds are eligible to be inducted next year in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--and their election is a cinch.

“That’s another reason to get this name settled,” Hillman said. “I’d hate to see 29 guys stand up (when they call the Byrds name).”

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