- Terelle Jerricks
Byrds That Came Full Circle
By B. Noel Barr and Melina Paris
Alvas Showroom buzzed with excitement as we waited for Toulouse Engelhardt and John York to play on April 6.
Engelhardt was the star of the night as the 12-string master engaged us with an over-the-top performance and stories from his days on the road. John brought another side of the Americana story as one of the troubadours of the folk rock scene of the 60s.
John opened the show with an amazing set of covers and original music. He allowed us to step off into a world that only existed for a brief moment in our collective conscious. John’s raspy style of singing is firm with conviction and the understanding of the gentle nuances of great songs and performance.
John opened with Dylan’s “The Chimes of Freedom,” one of the several Byrds songs covered over the course of the evening. The room was spellbound as the words and melody fell like rain-washing your soul in a new morning light.
“As we listened on one last time, and we watched with one last look, as we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”
In a phone interview after the show, John recounted the backstory of the song “The Bells of Rhymney,” and why The Byrds would not do this song live.
“The band decided they could not do this song justice live,” John explained. “What had been done the studio was the best they could ever do with it.”
Pete Seeger composed the music for this song and Welsh poet Idris Davies wrote the lyrics. At Alvas, John took on this song as a challenge and brought it! As he played, his bass soared as it lamented the deaths resulting from a mining disaster and strike.
John was an established bassist and guitarist before the Byrds, and he continued on long after the Byrds. Even now, he tours with a trio, a duo with Barry McGuire, and sometimes does solo performances in concert with Toulouse Engelhardt.
The Byrds, like many bands, have gone through personnel changes over the course of the group’s history. John hooked up with the band when bassist Chris Hillman left to start the more bluegrass oriented Flying Burrito Brothers. He believes Byrds’ guitarist, Clarence White, was the one that got him in.
“I had done some gigs with Clarence White and Gene Clark,” John explained. “I had been playing bass for The Mamas and Papas and the drummer was Eddie Hoh. When Gene Clark had some gigs at the Whiskey, he hired Eddie to play drums. I would imagine Gene asked, ‘what about a bass?’ When Chris left The Byrds, I’m thinking that it must have been Clarence who said he knew a guy who plays the bass, but it’s never been verified.”
John only was with the Byrds from 1968 to 1969. But in that brief stint he co-wrote songs on the albums, Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde and The Ballad of Easy Rider. He also performed on Bob Dylan’s non-album single “Lay Lady Lay.” And that’s not to forget he also performed on the cut, Live at The Fillmore in 1969.
Before he joined the Byrds, John was in the Bees and The Sir Douglas Quintet. With The Sir Douglas Quintet in 1966, John played on the single, She Digs My Love. In the years following his time with the Byrds, John was working in the studio as well as touring with the Mama’s and Papa’s, Johnny Rivers and the touring band of former Byrd bandmate, Gene Clark. He has worked with various artists with roots in the sixties, including his bandmates in Kaleidoscope, Chris Darrow and Chester Krill. John has also worked with writer/producer impresario Kim Fowley, and has united with Skip Batten, his replacement in the Byrds on another project.
In the 2000s, John has recorded and performed with Toulouse Engelhardt and Remi Kabaka, who played with the Rolling Stones. He is currently touring with Barry McGuire in a show they call, Trippin’ the 60’s. John and Barry McGuire are playing at The Coffee Gallery Backstage April 17 and 18.
In May, he’ll be performing at show called A Byrd Winging it Alone, followed by a Q-and-A at The Coffee Gallery Backstage.
“To my mind people don’t want to hear me talk they want to hear me play music,” John said. “I’m not sure but if he really wants me to try I will. I would love it if people would come out and hear the music. There’s not many of us left.”
Fifty years of playing good music on stages large and small provides a unique perspective on the musical experience.
“Music is something that is played right in front of you that you effect,” he said. “Don’t give that experience up because it’s really being taken away from us. Now it’s seems you go hear music and there’s 5,000 people and big video screens and you need binoculars to see the people on stage, come on! Try to go somewhere, lay down $15 to 20 and sit with 50 or 100 people in a room and let somebody move you with music.”
There was a time that John followed a different muse, making world music. We asked about his passion for middle-eastern music and his practice of incorporating the oud (a pear shaped stringed instrument played throughout the Middle East) into his music.
“I did an album in 2000 called Claremont Dragon and that was the end of a time when I was really obsessed with the instruments of the world,” he said.
It was during an almost three decade period where John was trying to make a musical bridge. He explained that at the time, it was really important that his music broadened the musical palate of the people listened to his music.
“Maybe the listeners would hear The Claremont Dragon and they would say, ‘What is that?’” he said. “They would look at the liner notes and see it is an oud, or an Irish tin whistle or Irish harp. Then maybe they would seek out people who could really play those things.”
We asked if John felt like he made that bridge.
“A small group of people responded to that. I would always include an exotic instrument in my performances,” John said. “At some point I went to Dublin Ireland, I really felt at home among the Irish people. I realized that pretty much all my life I had felt pretty uncomfortable being a white guy and all this music I had been so interested in my whole life might have been some kind of balance for me on some deep subconscious level.”
Beyond the neon idolatry of popular idioms there are players who come to us in a full circle to the innocence of truthful song craft and performance. John and Toulouse Engelhardt are standard-bearers in that truth.