A great way to remember the underrated Byrd.
Many critics believe Gene Clark was the greatest Byrds songwriter. But he separated from the band before his group contributions could be fully explored within that act’s all-star setting. And sadly, his solo recordings never made too big a mark on the music scene at large. But LA roots rocker, Carla Olson, befriended Clark not too long before his early, untimely death, and this two-CD set revives a few of their warm performances together.
The first CD is taken from a Mountain Stage solo show by Clark. It includes “Tried So Hard”, a fine old Byrds’ song, but the other seven tunes are Clark solo works. Clark wrote them all, of course, except for “My Marie”, which he co-wrote with Pat Robinson, and “Train Leaves Here This Morning”, penned with Bernie Leadon, whom you may know from his time with the Eagles. This initial CD is also filled out with three songs performed by Clark and Olson in the former’s Sherman Oaks, California living room. One of these is an only-the-strong-survive type track, titled “Number One Is To Survive”, which Olson wrote. Clark penned “Mary Sue” with help from John York, another former Byrd, and “Del Gato”, which he wrote with Rick Clark. It’s also worth noting that this show was never released commercially, and the three living room tracks originally appeared on the Rhino Records 1987 version of So Rebellious a Lover, a Clark/Olson studio release.
The second disc is from a 1990 show at Santa Monica’s famed McCabe’s Guitar Shop, and this one’s a duet performance from start to finish, with the set list even better than the first CD. In addition to Clark’s songs, there is also a gentle reading of the traditional “Fair & Tender Ladies”, Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing On My Mind”, “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” by John Prine, and another traditional, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. Further, there’s a great take on John Fogerty’s “Almost Saturday Night”. The duo is assisted instrumentally by the wonderful Duane Jarvis on guitar and mandolin, and Steve Young adds vocals to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. The playing is loose, yet inspired, as Clark even whistles a bit during “Fair & Tender Ladies”.
Although Clark is clearly the star of this intimate show, Olson also sings a powerful version of her own “Photograph” during the set. Its lyric tells of how she’d almost forgotten a former lover—at least until she saw his face again in a photograph. After she’s done singing, and the applause has died down, Clark exclaims, “Great song!” But Olson could have easily made the same exclamation after each and every Clark performance. In fact, he follows up Olson’s lead vocal take with his own “Set Your Free This Time”, another amazing Byrds song. With its jangle guitar backing, and Olson’s unobtrusive vocal accompaniment, it almost creates Byrds-mania all over.
For those who dig modern Americana and alt.country, but have not yet put their teeth into Gene Clark’s slight but amazing catalogue, this 26-song live collection is a real fine place to start. It’s also a great introduction to Olson, no slouch herself. These two singer/songeriters made magic together, and it’s all captured on these two essential discs.