Somehow it doesn’t matter that these two bands have gone through enough internal and external hassles to cover the New York Metropolitan Opera for the next ten years. They just keep producing wave after wave of fine music.
The Byrds, of course — under the aegis of McGuinn the Survivor — are renowned for a rich, thickly-textured instrumental sound and equally distinctive vocal harmony. Every new Byrds album seems a continuation of the last; few surprises occur — instead, it’s just like a visit with old friends.
Steve Miller’s music, in contrast, seems more jigsaw-puzzleish. Rather than the Byrds’ unending stream — with the water never the same, yet always the same — Miller’s albums and individual tracks seem more like a Work in Progress, little disparate pieces that fit together in odd ways, bits on a later album relating back to something on Sailor, say, and linking it to Brave New World. One of these years, the whole opus will fall into place.
But musicians like to confound critics. Everyone who’s written about the Byrds has detected, in retrospect at least, their all-along C&W soul; now McGuinn is denying that as mostly mythical, as having been merely the influence of Parsons and Hillman on the group. His claim won’t wash for Dr. Byrds (cut after their departure), but it just might for Ballad of Easy Rider — because this album exhibits several cuts with a whole “new” sound.
Unfortunately, it’s also only intermittently successful. The title cut, for example, adds strings (!); but it flows gently, sweet Dylan, brief and to the point, and McGuinn’s voice truly makes you feel free. “Fido” comes next — “Bird Dog” revisited — with cowbells and conga rhythms and a definitely non-Byrds harmony (evidently McGuinn’s no longer requiring the other voices to complement his). Followed then by old-time Byrds-gospel, “Oil in My Lamp.” Jaunty guitar interplay, but a paltry song. McGuinn’s feeling vocal and Clarence White’s hick picking bring it all back home with “Tulsa County Blue”: “I don’t know just where I’ll go . . .” A bizarre rendition of “Jack Tarr the Sailor” closes out the top side.
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The bottom side’s equally confused — strong and sure for “Jesus Is Just Alright” and a slow-as-molasses-or-Fudge “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” For the latter, McGuinn contributes a much more inventive vocal than he did for Easy Rider (the film), and White’s guitar spices and spruces everything up. But the rest’s a long dying fall — nice enough, but from the Byrds you expect more and better.
From the Miller band, on the other hand, you never expect as much, so it’s always a pleasure and somehow a surprise to hear a good new Miller release. Brave New World proved so much better than it had a right to be after Boz Scaggs’ departure. Your Saving Grace is even more outstanding — due in no small part, I expect, to the presence of Nicky Hopkins on five of the album’s eight cuts. It all works here, even the down-South scene updated, “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around,” and the freaky “Lost Wombat in Mecca,” with Connie Somebody on slide guitar.
Four tracks strike me as potential classics. “Little Girl,” light-footed and glad-hearted, could make it as a single, while “Motherless Children” has a little bit of everything: “dark” ensemble backing, limber harpsichord from Hopkins, electronic squeaks and squawks, a spare, brilliant guitar solo from Miller himself — and all the pieces fit. Another blues bash with fine guitar thrown off almost casually is “Feel So Glad”: as Hopkins’ piano pushes and prods, Miller rises to inspired heights.
My favorite track, however, is the nine-minute romance called “Baby’s House.” It’s merely beautiful, as the young lady’s abode goes from silver-forlorn to purple-filled. Miller’s voice should tickle the fancy of every chick who hears the record; Hopkins’ keyboarding seems like a capsule history of techniques from high-church-chorale organ to ricky-tick rock and roll. His touch is gentle and immaculate as he just goes on and on, playing umpteen styles at once. Play “Baby’s House” for somebody you love.
The Byrds are still on the wing, but seem a little woozy and wobbly, while Steve Miller just keeps takin’ care of business.