John York of The Byrds: A Sunday Afternoon Concert
In the Los Angeles Americana-folk music scene, opportunities abound for rare and off-the-radar concert experiences that allow veteran artists to quietly deliver unique treasure troves of songs and stories to appreciative fans. No live music venue supports this experience with as much consistency and integrity as The Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena in Southern California just a few miles north of Pasadena.
And few artists can bring honest, heart-felt simplicity and soul to live-acoustic music with the grace and authenticity of singer-songwriter John York. His recent post-pandemic solo acoustic shows bring to life the busking days of the early ’60s Greenwich Village years when Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk, and the young wet-behind-the-ear newcomer from Hibbing, Minnesota, Bob Dylan, played for intensely attentive audiences at coffee houses like Café Wha? and The Bitter End.
On March 5th, at a Sunday afternoon gathering, a capacity audience was treated to a revival of the spirit of those Village coffee houses for a rare concert with John York. This veteran folk-rock artist has weaved in and out of the public spotlight for the last 60 years in a variety of ways. A former member of The Byrds and a journeyman-troubadour, York has recorded and toured with Sir Douglas Quintet, The Mamas and the Papas, Johnny Rivers, The Band’s Richard Manual & Rick Danko, Blondie Chapman, Carla Olson, and Gene Clark. At the dawn of the 21st Century, he toured internationally with singer Barry McGuire, who made history in 1965 with P.F. Sloan’s classic protest song, “Eve of Destruction.”
For the two-hour show, John York shared his treasure of musical experience and knowledge of songs and stories. At 76 years old, he created an entertaining and soulfully rich musical experience for a captivated audience. It was an afternoon of pin-drop moments as York presided and curated over his 70 years of making music.
Using the well-established bohemian coffee house vibe organically built into the 30-year-old venue located along an antique storefront corner; and keeping with his royal folksinger veteran status, York took to the stage and promptly sat down with his faithful, harmonic 12-string guitar in hand. That’s all it took to bring the folk Muse into the room; a fine singer-songwriter and his well-played guitar. York then played two sets of familiar classics like the inevitable Byrd standards, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and off-the-beaten path songs that illustrated his journey. He included songs recorded and performed during his one-year tenure with The Byrds. An example was the opening “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” which included the story Roger McGuinn has told over the years, revealing how Dylan wrote portions of the lyrics and gave them to McGuinn. However, he demanded that his authorship credit be left out.
Dylan famously objected to the film’s negative portrayal of the people of the American south during the turbulent late 1960s. York’s version of the classic song carried the Byrds’ vocal and guitar trademark sound. But his performance showed a singer-songwriter acutely tuned in to the spirit of the music. As an interpreter of songs, York brought the sensibility of a songwriter who can get beneath the song’s skin and into its heart.
The concert included poignant moments like when he paid homage to Canadian iconic folk singer Ian Tyson, with the song he said is the unofficial Canadian national anthem, “Four-Strong-Winds,” and the less familiar, “What Does She See?” a love song from an older cowboy to his young love. York’s introduction to this touching Ian Tyson love song included a nod to his wife, giving the lyrics a bittersweet irony. With utmost sincerity, subtle emotion, and straightforward delivery, the love conveyed through Tyson’s lyrics became less sentimental than authentic. The connection York made with this seldom-heard Tyson ballad was moving as it revealed the power of the folk song to communicate a portrait that rings true to this moment in the life of the singer and the audience.
Along the way on this musical road trip, York paid tribute to the song Byrds’ cover he recorded with The Byrds in 1968 by including The Band/Dylan classic, “This Wheels on Fire,” transformed into a stylized Byrds song from the era of McGuinn, White, York & Parsons.
As a storyteller and troubadour, he then took us back in time to an Irish ballad. “She Moved Through the Fair.” The song has been handed down for generations. It was recorded by Fairport Convention, Pete Seeger and Sinead O’Connor.
After the classic romantic tale, York said he felt like getting in touch with his ‘inner-Bo-Diddley.’ This comment led to some rootsy rock n roll, as once played by the master rocker Bo Diddley, “You Can’t Judge a Book (by Looking at its Cover).”
Even though the norm at traditional coffee house concerts is to sit and be cool, this song had some audience members dancing while seated in their chairs.
As the concert came to an end, York thanked his audience for the warm greeting and participation, saying, “I love it when you show up!”; one audience member said, “This the first time I’ve heard you. I’m a Vietnam veteran, and some of these songs brought me to tears!” John compassionately replied, “Welcome,” and finished the show with the John Fogerty classic, “As Long as I Can See the Light,” with the lyrics
Guess I’ve got that old traveling bone
Cause this feeling won’t leave me alone
But I won’t, won’t
Be losing my way, no, no
Long as I can see the light.”
Thanks to John York, a small audience a little northeast of Los Angeles saw some light. On this one winter Sunday in March, all pretenses of divisiveness that inhabit our lives, including those found in social media and the horrendous political landscape we walk through, were set aside as this journeyman folksinger brought us together sheltering us from the storm with stories, songs of mercy, love, reconciliation, and healing.