Fans who saw one of Roger McGuinn's low-keyed solo shows during his long exile from the pop limelight may have heard him stringing his old Byrds hits together into a fanciful, tongue-in-cheek story line.
The tale went something like this: Kid comes out of the Arabian desert, grabs himself a chestnut mare, rides quickly to pop stardom. Then, quicker than you can say, "So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star," the kid's nova implodes and he's back in the middle of nowhere.
Listeners couldn't help concluding that McGuinn was feeling a tad jaundiced about the music business (after all, the record industry spent the '80s ignoring him). But audiences who caught McGuinn's solo act also could go away reassured that he was no burnout case. Alone with a 12-string, McGuinn was still singing like a Byrd and playing as well as he had in the jingle-jangle morning of his career.
It thus comes as little surprise that McGuinn's comeback album, "Back From Rio," confidently reasserts his sovereignty over the signature '60s Byrds sound that inspired the likes of Tom Petty and R.E.M. to take wing in the '70s and '80s. It's a conservative album, given to recapitulation of a classic style rather than to exploration of new permutations. Still, McGuinn's clenched, fervently emotional singing and that ringing Rickenbacker sound make "Rio" a reliably pleasant piece of work, despite the nostalgia factor.
The album's best song, "King of the Hill," finds McGuinn still sounding jaundiced about the rock 'n' roll game. With help from Petty, who co-wrote the song and takes a duet vocal, McGuinn portrays stardom as a gilded isolation chamber at the end of a path strewn with intentions both worthy (the urge to create) and questionable (the ego that drives one to be "King of the Hill"). It's a nice treatment of an old McGuinn theme.
As his comeback continues, McGuinn will have to muster more substance and bite than he does on "Back From Rio" if he wants to reclaim a spot on pop's creative heights. The album's weakest song, "The Trees Are All Gone," finds McGuinn rehashing the riff from Petty's "Refugee" while whining soapbox nostrums about how screwed up the environment is, and how bad politicians are.
Great to have you back, Rog. But as that kid in the Arabian desert found out, the honeymoon ends fast.
On "Back From Rio," McGuinn was backed primarily by members of Petty's Heartbreakers and Desert Rose Band guitarist John Jorgenson. His touring band, the Headlights, is a four-man unit from Florida, where McGuinn has been based for a number of years.
Who: Roger McGuinn.
When: Friday, April 26, at 9 p.m.
Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Center.
Where to call: (714) 496-8930.