Chris Hillman stands quietly at the center of some of the most influential music of the last five decades. A founding member of the Byrds, Hillman’s work paved the way for myriad bands that often soared higher.
He and fellow traveler Herb Pedersen have been playing together in various permutations for years, and they recently alighted in San Diego for an acoustic evening.
With a songbook that is deeper than most performers, Hillman was able to provide an eclectic set list. Even the prototypical and seminal melding of electric guitars, folk, country and rock (“Eight Miles High”) was rendered with confidence. Hillman transposed McGuinn’s Rickenbacker guitar solo to the mandolin with aplomb. The lyrical reference to a legacy British band inevitably drew a few knowing smiles: ‘in places Small Faces unbound’ (although I used to hear it as ‘abound’).
Introducing “I Am Alive” from his 1998 solo album Hillman mentioned the song was written for a former colleague needing an organ transplant and then a few years later the sentiment applied to himself. After the show, I confirmed with Hillman that he was indeed referring to Croz.
As if to confirm his eclectic and expansive perspective, Hillman assayed a surprisingly effective rendition of Brubeck’s jazz nugget “Take Five,” and “Paint it Black” was a undoubtedly a nod to Parson’s time with Keef.
Hillman went back to his first recordings (1962!) with several tracks from The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. Hillman and Pedersen played a few tracks from their most lucrative era, as The Desert Rose Band, when Hillman earned the commercial acclaim he richly deserved (“She Don’t Love Nobody”).
Hillman’s residency with the Flying Burrito Brothers was represented as well (“Wheels” and “Sin City”).
But the highlights of the evening were gems from The Byrds, his favorite of which was a spine tingling “Bells of Rhymney.” (It was not so much the Welsh-based lyrics but the Byrds’ composition that influenced George Harrison when he wrote “If I Needed Someone”). Equally impressive was “Turn Turn Turn,” after which Hillman reminded any remaining skeptics that it was only on “Mr. Tambourine Man” that studio session players were used by The Byrds. “Have You Seen Her Face” was triggered by a single and long forgotten blind date.
Hillman’s sturdy voice and Pedersen’s harmonizing tenor were excellent. Ultimately it was the pure and joyful bluegrass that shown through that evening, just two fully accomplished string players enjoying themselves.