The Byrds’ legend has been well documented over the years with re-mastered versions of each of their albums, including a wealth of unreleased cuts and alternate takes. In fact, a boxed set was released in 1990. I expect that there will be some discussion about the real need for this latest package from America’s most influential band. Of the 99 songs, there are only 6 unreleased cuts, none of which have the aura of the “lost” Gram Parsons vocals that appeared on the original box set. Yeah, I’m certain that Sony will be accused of milking the Byrds franchise for every last dollar that can be squeezed from their fans (old and young).
I wouldn’t dream of speculating on the financial motivation for the record labels, but even though (as a die-hard Byrds fanatic) I have some minor issues with the song selection, “There is a Season” represents the most comprehensive treatment of this group’s contribution to rock history to date. The original boxed set was (justly) criticized for underplaying Gene Clark’s creative role. There is a Season corrects this oversight in spades and provides us with a stunning portrait of the development of the Byrds’ signature sound---jingle-jangle guitars, breathtaking harmonies, and constant experimentation with musical forms. We get to see a group of folkies grow from a Beatles wannabe band to one that never ceased experimenting with diverse musical forms, despite numerous personnel changes and internal tensions that would choke a horse. History has not been especially kind to the memory of the Byrds, but we are finally beginning to understand how the creative tensions impacted the end product over the years.
The 4 CDs are arranged in chronological order with the first disc focusing on the original 5 members, with subsequent discs featuring various incarnations of the group’s revolving-door membership. Every band member is represented and clearly, the weaker contributions of some of the latter-day Byrds pale in comparison, but remember…the group evolved into a killer live band at the end. One might suggest that they continued to be pioneers to the end as live performances grew in importance in the late sixties and early seventies. For what it's worth, Season appears to be a transitional compilation that more than does justice to the music that was released under the Byrds moniker. At some point in time, some enterprising individual is going to cast the Byrds in the proper light as a collection of individuals who continued to take music in new directions as solo artists. Think of what their legacy might be if considered in terms of both Byrds releases together with solo Clark, Crosby, Hillman, and McGuinn output. There is some precedence…on Gene Clark’s solo album Roadmaster, the original Byrds reunited on two songs…”She’s the Kind of Girl” and “One in a Hundred”…the results are absolutely breathtaking and the inclusion of these two cuts on Season would have strengthened the set immensely.
Disc One shows the very early Beatles influences with "The Only Girl I Adore," an acoustic piece featuring Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby as the Jet Set. The signature sound has not hit its stride yet. With the jazzy “Airport Song”, we get a hint of what is to come. With “Mr. Tambourine Man”, everything comes together although, interestingly, Hillman hints that the group had not fully developed as a band yet…referring to “Turn Turn Turn”---“…the band is a band – there is a different movement to the music. You can feel it”. All of the chestnuts from the 1st two albums are here and it’s a joy to behold. Rightly so, the material is heavily focused on Dylan and Gene Clark material, although the absence of “We’ll Meet Again” is noted.
Disc Two begins with the manically brilliant “Eight Miles High” and follows the group through their most experimental and ground breaking albums…5D, Younger Than Yesterday, and Notorious Byrd Brothers. While the “hits” failed to materialize, the Byrds continued to push the envelope…they were no longer Beatle imitators, but peers of the Fab Four. The sheer scope of musical genres that were touched during these three albums is unmatched…even today. More astonishing is that these masterpieces emerged during a period of heightened creative tensions within the group…by the time “Notorious was released, the Byrds were reduced to a duo(McGuinn and Hillman).
Disc Three is liberally sprinkled with material from the groundbreaking “Sweetheart of The Rodeo”---a strong album made better with the inclusion of Gram Parsons vocals and alternate takes. Here, the boxed set begins to lose some momentum as material from all of the musicians that were hired by McGuinn is presented. Although there are many (stronger) alternative takes and live versions that elevate the quality of the material. The inclusion of “Candy” at the expense of “Bad Night at the Whiskey” or “Gunga Din” is puzzling. For me, the highlights on this disc involve the development of the interplay between McGuinn and Clarence White as the Byrds sound continues to evolve into a something heavier that was best realized during live performances.
Disc Four starts out with 12 consecutive live cuts, emphasizing the group’s strength at this point although the choice of material is somewhat questionable given some of the already-available live cuts. Although, to be fair, these cuts provide a showcase for Clarence White’s brilliant guitar work. There are a few unreleased versions of songs here that are interesting, but not essential. “You All Look Alike” features a Skip Battin vocal. This could have easily been replaced with “Lazy Waters” or “Welcome Back Home”…two downright pretty songs by the most maligned member of the Byrds. The live version of “Jesus is Just Alright” (a guaranteed ‘get on your feet and dance’ number) is sadly missing. The disc closes out with some material from the underappreciated Byrds reunion album. Again, the cut from that album where everything seemed to come together (“See the Sky About to Rain”) is absent.
The bonus DVD includes 10 lip-synched versions of hits performed on various television shows. This was interesting to watch as it shows how the original members began to develop their individual stage presences. Crosby becomes more assertive (and cocky---watch the “8 Miles High “ segment---it's Crosby’s show and McGuinn’s guitar work is ignored…Huh?). The gem of the DVD is a performance of “Mr. Spaceman” featuring a dazed Gene Clark replacing the fired David Crosby on guitar for a Smothers Brothers show. The DVD was a nice touch, but it could have been stronger if some live performances from the latter day Byrds could have been included.
All in all, this set represents a vast improvement over the original boxed set. It’s a must for any serious student of rock history. For now, however, the definitive Byrds collection is waiting to happen.