Roger McGuinn at Woodbridge, NJ

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Since moving to New Jersey, we have been pleased, surprised, and delighted by the astonishing range of opportunities to hear live music — from the buskers on the boardwalk to the jam-packed concert halls.

But our favorite is the most unusual (to us at least):  small-town churches and middle schools hosting truly remarkable artists and legends. We have attended three such performances (as well as the Bordentown record store featuring Chris Smither, which I talked about earlier this year): Jesse Colin Young in a church at Chatham, John Sebastian in a church at Woodbridge, and last night Roger McGuinn at the Woodbridge middle school.

What has been most striking at these performances is the respect and warmth and appreciation that exudes from the audience and seemingly brings out the best in the performers. There is an palpable affection and connection in the room that makes these evenings pure magic. The musicians we’ve seen are playful, friendly, and down to earth. And in all three cases, their level of artistry and mastery was unquestionable.

Roger McGuinn exemplified all of this last night (note: it was last night May 5 when I started writing this; it is now almost three months later). The ninety-minute set took the form of a history of music and how it coincided and underscored (pun intended) the work of the Byrds. So we were treated to a bit of Bach, sea shanties, cowboy songs, Woody Guthrie, and beyond in a dazzling panorama of musical culture. The overview history coincided with his personal history once we reached the 1950s. The connection was made crystal clear with his explanation of Lead Belly’s twelve-string guitar influencing Pete Seeger and Pete Seeger introducing it to him, Roger McGuinn. It was a nifty and rather awesome bit of history: this modest man in black in front of us two degrees removed from a legend, and one from a living legend.

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