Though The Byrds music was consistently centered around Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string guitar and folky voice supported by pristine harmonies, few bands can rival their musical creativity, as they jumped between genres and band lineups with ease, spearheading the development of folk rock, psychedelia and country rock. Perhaps there was just too much talent in that original band lineup to last, and the band’s finest songwriter Gene Clark soon departed, to be followed by David Crosby and finally Chris Hillman, leaving McGuinn to rebuild the band from scratch. He did, starting with the otherworldly guitar talents of Clarence White, who had recently played on The Byrds’ country rock masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo as an ace session musician. With a strong background in traditional country and bluegrass, White ft the band’s Gram Parsons-inspired country rock shift perfectly, and his improvisatory interplay with McGuinn unquestionably led The Byrds to new heights as a live band. However despite the recovery and renaissance of the ‘new’ Byrds with White, they would never quite reach the excellence of Sweetheart of the Rodeo in the studio again, producing albums plagued by poor production and, eventually, a drying up song well.
Sanctuary III, an album of unissued gems and alternate versions or mixes, was recorded during the sessions for the production-marred Ballad of an Easy Rider and criminally underrated Untitled album. Terry Melcher’s irksome, orchestral production is cast aside here, leaving much more room for White in particular to shine. Akin to his contemporaries Jerry Garcia and Ry Cooder, White combined an encyclopedic knowledge of music with dazzling creativity, producing a sound instantly recognizable as his own while trying to mimic the pedal steel guitar. This version of ‘Ballad of an Easy Rider’ is a revelation, with the beautiful string arrangement of the official studio release still present, but toned down enough to let McGuinn’s warm fingerpicking and vocals stand out, with White’s goosebumps-inducing string-bending between verses taking centerstage.
‘Mae Jean Goes to Hollywood,’ a song written by a then unknown Jackson Browne, also features some of White’s most breathtaking work along with a great, natural vocal from McGuinn (who at other times was prone to exaggerating a country-influenced vocal flair). It’s a crime that this one was never officially released during the band’s heyday, and, as far as who to blame, McGuinn states in the liner notes, “Why this never came out was one of those decisions I probably wasn’t involved in. Terry (Melcher) was in total control of what went on the albums… ” A damn shame, but here we have the best of the band’s material of the time presented as it feels like they originally intended. Side one closes with studio versions of the live material released on Untitled, and while those live performances can’t be beat, it’s an absolute treat to hear a version of ‘Lover of the Bayou’ that’s just as fiery but with the sound quality of a recording studio, and fascinating to hear the seeds for their epic ‘Eight Miles High’ live jams on ‘White’s Lightning Pt. 1’.
Side 2 features plenty more stunning work from White, particularly on the funky instrumentals ‘Build It Up’ and ‘White’s Lightning Pt. 2’. These are some of the only known off-the-cuff studio jams to emerge from White and every note this pure individualist delivers is simply a pleasure. Nearly all the alternate versions of tracks from officially released albums are found in superior form here, from ‘Kathleen’s Song’ freed from its dreadful strings to a bouncier ‘Oil in My Lamp’ with surprisingly effective vocals from White. Ballad of Easy Rider is full of great moments that showcase the potential of this latter day lineup of The Byrds – but this collection, long sitting unreleased, is really where that potential came to life in the studio.
The album is currently available via Sundazed. Generally speaking, Sundazed do strong work on repressing classic albums and this is an especially spectacular sounding vinyl release. Most of the tracks are also available on Spotify as bonus tracks on the respective albums, but, as nearly always, I recommend the vinyl for full enjoyment of Clarence White’s finest playing.