Talk From The Rock Room: November 2020

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Between the Lines: Chris Hillman- ‘Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito and Beyond’

For the most unassuming member of the band the ‘Byrds’, Chris Hillman has made a most indelible mark on rock and roll history. For a man once asked by John Lennon, ‘Does he talk?’, Hillman’s new memoir, Time Between: My life as a Byrd, Burrito and Beyond speaks in measured truthful tones regarding Hillman’s fifty plus years in music. Chris Hillman, in his own words, dispels rock and roll myth with tales about the ‘Byrds’ monster arrival on the musical scene with ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, discloses truths about his relationship with tragic musical legend Gram Parsons, and lets the reader in on a number of clandestine rock and roll and life moments.  A founding member of the ‘Byrds’, ‘Flying Burrito Brothers’, 'Manassas', and his own Desert Rose Band, Hillman played at Monterey Pop and Altamont and in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion the major impetus for what rock history refers to as the ‘country rock' movement.

Through his deft navigation of multiple instruments, and his deep seated love of bluegrass music, Hillman has developed a portfolio of masterful compositions, LP’s and genre defying arrangements. We can now include a book full of stories no longer locked away with his muse. Hillman has worked with some of the most legendary collaborators in rock and country history, including but not limited to, Roger McGuinn, Clarence White, Gram Parsons, Herb Petersen, Bernie Leadon, Tom Petty and Stephen Stills. Finally, his remembrances have been documented wonderfully in the new autobiography Time Between: My life as a Byrd, Burrito and Beyond, due on November 17, 2020. Both Tom Petty (who produced Hillman’s 2017 LP ‘Bidin’ My Time’) and Dwight Yoakam offer special words and a forward for the detailed memoir.

Unlike similar tropes by other famed rockers, Hillman’s memories are untainted by salacious details and are more rooted in making sense of what a vital element he was in the development of rock and roll and country rock. Chris was essential observer and participant in a major musical revolution. He was often overshadowed by the ‘bigger’ personalities in his bands, such as David Crosby and Gram Parsons, but not because of any inferior musical prowess. Hillman was cool without effort, his perceived aloofness included a higher level of talent and intuition.

Hillman’s story begins with fire, a theme that is consistent throughout the book as Hillman burns with a desire which seems to follow an almost predetermined path. The loss of his father from suicide was an obvious and defining moment that becomes a weight as well as an impetus in developing his life. Chris was a ‘middle class California kid’ who with talent, chance, hard work and instilled morals was thrown into a seismic era of music and madness and came out an essential element in the development of rock and country. Hillman as a teen in the early 1960’s would soon be witnessing things he had only read about in books.  Horses, and fast cars would soon give room to mandolins, guitars and eventually an unexpected fame that would change his existence.

Well timed and well intentioned meetings litter his early path to becoming a musician. Producer Jim Dickson, Jim McGuinn, The Godsin Brothers, Clarence White, are just a few of the relationships discussed by Hillman as his career was built brick by brick. Obviously, the famed period from 1965 through the end of the ‘Burrito’s is vital and is covered in lovingly great detail. His attentiveness to his development as well as those around him offers entertainment as well as life lessons. Hillman’s modesty and conversational tone are part of the allure of the book, allowing the reader to relate, a tall task in a rock and roll memoir.

Hillman’s importance in the emergence and genre blending of ‘country rock’ cannot be understated. He is aware of this but offers a refreshing and realistic take, by letting the reader breath in the rarefied air of the era and inviting them to make their own connections. He lends the reader a ‘Byrds’ eye view of the rock and roll world through an essential and inside place.

Hillman clarifies myth, recounting the dramas littering his groups;  the ‘Byrds’, ‘Flying Burrito Brothers’,‘ Manassas’ and his solo career lineups. He reveals the truth regarding Gram Parsons dismissal from the ‘Burrito’s and the sad reality of Gene Clark. But these historic yarns are secondary to what the book is all about, which is Chris Hillman’s music, faith and longevity. Hillman is a real authentic while discussing the pitfalls his own career faced in the mid to late 1970’s. He connects the wires understanding the reasons for his own decent into the trappings of fame, drugs, business and desperation. He witnessed the talent of his close friends deteriorate and used his upbringing and faith to keep him on a line that would lead to a literal and figurative rebirth in the 1980’s.

Hillman was always best at supporting a band, the most essential ‘sideman’ in rock history.  Following a number of life changing events including his marriage to current wife Connie, a new collaborator in Steve Hill, and his rebirth as a man of faith, Hillman’s career became everything he had ever wanted. Chris Hillman had returned to the music of his DNA, bluegrass and string band melodies, and in the process rediscovered himself. His group and new musical medium, the ‘Desert Rose Band’ contained an impressive rotating cast with Hillman as the axis. The group allowed for honest collaboration and in the interim, became a huge country music success.

Chris had finally found all of the life pieces he had been collecting since a youth and placed them together at the appropriate time. Hillman underwent a major spiritual revitalization until an unexpected battle with Hepatitis C almost killed him. Once again, a thread woven throughout the text is family and faith is what can get you through anything. It's amazing he is still here with us.

Like all great comebacks, Hillman’s return to health also marked the dawning of a renewed interest in ‘alt-country’, a genre that Hillman in all honesty had been developing since 1965. The reader cannot help but marvel at Hillman’s ‘country rock’ lifetime, but like the best movies we find ourselves rooting for the central hero. Hillman released the Tom Petty produced LP ‘Biding My Time’ in 2017 and found himself right in the thick of it yet again.

Though finding himself right where he needed to be, Hillman has revealed the last few years a mixture of sweet and sour. A number of friends and family including Tom Petty have moved to the next realm. Similarly to the beginning of his tale, fire again returned to his life in December 2017 in the form of wildfires displacing him and Connie from their home. But like Hillman states in the book, ‘Life is all about change and growth’ and as 2018 dawned Chris once again returned to the road celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ‘Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Reunited with Roger McGuinn, the therapy of music, family and faith brought it all full circle, a reoccurring theme in the book.

Time Between: My life as a Byrd, Burrito and Beyond comes at a time when we all need something to look forward to. Through his lifetime Chris Hillman was always the one in a supporting role, providing to the needs of the band, as opposed to the one. Today, he is the front man, speaking loud and clear and jamming into tomorrow.  For fans of rock and roll history this is a critical read. Musical insight, rock myths and important life lessons abound, Chris Hillman is the solid foundation in every artistic endeavor he undertakes.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Fleetwood Mac - Bare Trees - 'When We Are Dust'

Spinning today in the ‘rock room’ is a transitional yet beautifully creative LP obscured by the mists of rock history. The album’s enigmatic vibe is because the record acts a bridge between era’s as well as band members. Fleetwood Mac’s 1972 record Bare Trees was recorded post Peter Green, pre Buckingham/Nicks and right when Danny Kirwan was aiming to leave the group. The lineup at this point in the band’s existence was founding members Mick Fleetwood, John McVie as the rhythm section, Christine McVie on piano and vocals as well as Danny Kirwan and newcomer Bob Welch on guitar and vocals.

The album is a heterogeneous mix of compositions and influence. Only little tattered remains exist sonically of the Peter Green Fleetwood Mac blues band, and on the record there is now a sanded sweetness to the sound that foreshadows the FM radio Fleetwood Mac only 3 short years away. A wonderful record reflected in the pastoral landscape of the cover of towering trees caught between seasons, suspended on a misty grey area. The recording finds Danny Kirwan reaching a creative peak, Christine McVie a full time member of the band and Bob Welch lending the group a slick professionalism. While this line up of the 'Mac' gets filed between the two towering lineup's their albums and importance cannot be understated. The final track on the album is a poem titled, 'Thoughts On a Grey Day' is a poem read by a close neighbor of the band when recording the record. The content of the poem informed and inspired much of Danny Kirwan's writing on the LP.

The record begins with the churning ‘Child of Mine’, McVie’s blue Rhodes piano rolling under the undulating rhythm anchored by McVie’s loopy bass. The song has wind-blown melody but does retain an edge with some prickly lead lines from Kirwan. The music elicits movement, the search for child misplaced from a life from time. The song is biographical as Kirwan never knew his biological father. By the second verse, the addition of circular tom tom strikes lend even more urgency to the track. There is a dizzying breakdown mid song with a cavernous guitar tone by Kirwan and a spongy bed underneath. A ‘Badfinger’ rocker comes to mind when I play this cut, don’t know why. But it always happens.  Great rocker, big guitars, ace opener.

Bob Welch’s ‘The Ghost’ opens with an acoustic and bass guitar playing a prelude melody in unison. Welch was from California, and it shows in the song’s gusty construction and the spectral chorus motif that just feels warm and right. A woody flute (created by McVie on Mellotron) winds around the songs body.  

Christine McVie illustrates a strong vocal showing with the following ‘Homeward Bound’ The song begins as a real thumper with a robust cowbell driven groove. These are McVie’s debut lead vocals as an official member of the ‘Mac’ with a urgent rocker. Pop rock perfection.

The sparkling and dramatic Kirwan penned ‘Sunny Side of Heaven’ rises above the horizon, levitated by a centrally located descending lick. Closing the first side of the LP, the song cruises just inches above the tree tops, warmth on its wings. The melody sails almost weightlessly, the guitar singing over lacy undercurrents. Again, Kirwan and Welch deftly weave guitar lines without ever getting too busy. This is genius stuff. This is one of those certain songs that is a universe unto itself, it existence unique, its magic tangible, and perfectly concluding side one.

The title track ‘Bare Trees’ opens side two and is one of the closest things to the previous Fleetwood Mac of old. The groove is propellant and bounds over snow drifts and glossy streams hoping to get home to a warm fire. Glistening guitars agitate the groove with anxious chugging and bountiful picking. Syncopated breaks cross cut the central theme with McVie and Kirwan playing a dual lick. These tasteful breaks are drizzled all over the record. A ‘rock room’ favorite, this track has all of the essential elements of a killer rock cut and is a fitting side two opener.

‘Sentimental Lady’ follows, another fantastic cut by Bob Welch. Here we can hear it in its formative state, a warm love song that would later reach number 8 on the charts when rerecorded for Welch’s 1977 solo album French Kiss. Oddly enough for that later version, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham would contribute with McVie producing. The song ‘feels’ like a hit as it hits your aural receptors, on the Bare Trees LP its tucked on side 2, just another fantastic song on a stuffed record. The chorus segment spotlights a helix of intertwined vocalists and shimmering guitars.

‘Danny Chant’ opens with a violent slashing wah-wah’d guitar prelude. Layers of stratified guitars give the song a firm foundation. A slide guitar moves in from somewhere, and the song reveals a tribal stomp. Dust rises around as a wordless melody line fittingly and rhythmically chanted. An weighty and disorienting Kirwin number that somehow strattles both sides of the 'Fleetwood Mac' musical fence and acts as a divide between the the Welch and McVie songs on either side.

'Spare Me a Little of Your Love' follows in dynamic contrast and gives Christine McVie her second spotlight of the record and is the perfect little pop song. The cut would endure as it was played in concert throughout the 1970's. The song is the blended hue on a pallet connecting era's of Fleetwood Mac. McVie's recognizable hearty voice pleads its case against a timeless melody and groovy backdrop. Beautiful. 

What many folks, myself included assert to be Danny Kirwan’s finest composition, ‘Dust’ is the penultimate track on the record. A gentle original wisp of British Folk, Kirwan’s fragile vocals and the haunting melody teeter on the edge of shattering into a thousand pieces. The song is a deeply introspective meditation on the inevitability of death and loss. Harmonies, breathy cotton mesh with a gently wobbling electric guitar. The song seems to pass through your fingers as its gifts soak into your ears.

A track of mixed emotions for Mac fans, but vital in the inspiration of Bare Trees, the final movement of the LP is 'Thoughts On a Grey Day'. A poem written and dictated by an elderly neighbor of where the band was living; Mrs. Scarrott dictates the text to Mick Fleetwood's recorder in a shaky but sure voice. The poem sums up the precipitation loss drizzled throughout the record, but also leaves the listener looking for some sort hopefulness that it always close at hand. It is the 'rock room's assertion that the poem is the vital motif which the record is distilled through.

'Fleetwood Mac's Bare Trees is an important detour in the substantial discography of 'Fleetwood Mac'. Filed in between two substantially discussed and recognized era's, the LP blend into the landscape like the leafless trees on its cover. The 'rock room' recommends pulling the album from the organized slumber of your record shelves or adding it to your collection for a completely reasonable deduction. Danny Kirwan, Christine McVie  and Bob Welch's songs deserve it.

Bare Trees LP