Review: Chris Hillman thumbs through his back pages

Above: Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson perform “Turn Turn Turn.”

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Chris Hillman is not a household name, but the influence of the bands he has been a part of has emanated from home stereos for nearly two generations. As a member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Manassas, Hillman helped blur the lines between rock, country and folk.

He visited all parts of his career during his free 100-minute concert Friday night at Olathe’s Frontier Park. His time with Gram Parson’s Burrito Brothers was represented by “Wheels,” which featured accompanist Herb Pederson on lead vocals. Two songs off the first Manassas album (with Stephen Stills) were also performed, but it was, of course, the Byrds numbers that drew the most applause.

“Turn Turn Turn” appeared early in the set and “Eight Miles High” closed it. In between, Hillman and Pederson performed several songs from their time in the Desert Rose Band: staples like “Together Again,” which was dedicated to Buck Owens, “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” and “The Water Is Wide.” Former Bonner Springs resident and fellow Byrd Gene Clark got a shout-out before a reading of his “Tried So Hard to Please Her.”

Hillman prefaced “Mr. Tambourine Man” with a story about joining the Byrds and how the group didn’t like the song the first time they heard it. Crediting Roger McGuinn with the guitar arrangement, Hillman proceeded to play it in a style closer to Bob Dylan’s original version.

With Pederson anchoring on six-string acoustic guitar and Hillman switching between mandolin and guitar, the vibe was more Greenwich Village than Monteray Pop. While the performances were well-executed, the limited instrumentation and style started to wear thin about halfway through.

The set picked up when Sam Bush joined the duo for three songs on the violin. Bush’s fleet-fingered fiddle playing drew big cheers on the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain,” but “The Old Cross Roads” was the highlight. The blend of Hillman and Pederson’s vocals recalled the Louvin Brothers, while Bush’s violin accentuated the country-gospel arrangement.

Hillman complained throughout the night about the humidity. It may have killed the tuning on his mandolin, but it also provided a platform for Hillman to tell stories about his influences and songwriting while tuning between songs. Although the humidity may have been miserable to a Southern California native like Hillman, a Midwesterner couldn’t have asked for a prettier mid-July evening.

About 500 people spread over the outfield for the show. Seated in camping chairs or on blankets, they brought their kids, dogs and magazines. With conversation at more than a murmur throughout, it was clear the music was just a reason to be outside, not the focus.

That was too bad, because while Peterman wasn’t McGuinn or David Crosby, his vocals complemented Hillman’s nicely. Both artists have been honing their craft for a long time, and they played off each other with a musicianship that is skillful, but not showy.

Bush concluded the evening with a set of his own. Leading his quintet on mandolin, Bush married traditional bluegrass with a rock backbeat on songs like Randy Newman’s “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man).”