Talk about a perfect song for a small crowd on a rainy night.
Thursday evening at the Irvine Valley College Performing Arts Center, former Byrds member John York opened with a truncated rendition of Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom."
The song — a solid contender for Dylan's masterpiece, although no entry will hold that title in a catalog as deep as his — paints a picture of stragglers ducking out of the elements to share a vision: "Far between sundown's finish and midnight's broken toll / we ducked inside the doorway as thunder went crashing."
The scholarship benefit performance by York and guitarist Toulouse Engelhardt, held before a damp crowd of a few dozen, may have been short on lightning, but it evoked the early 1960s folk scene in a different way. From the opening moments, in which York drifted onstage unannounced while instrumental music director Stephen Rochford discussed the show's fundraising aim, the atmosphere was casual and loose, as suited to a Bleecker Street coffeehouse as it was to a posh campus theater.
"I just had a realization," Engelhardt — a.k.a. Mr. Engelhardt, biology and environmental sciences instructor at IVC — said between numbers in his set. "I think I know everyone who's here tonight."
Over the course of nearly two hours, York and Engelhardt played long solo sets and teamed for a pair of duets at the end. Their musical histories have intertwined, as they noted in their comments throughout the show: Engelhardt vowed to learn the 12-string guitar after the Byrds visited his high school in 1966, and York had a brief stint with the group later in that decade. (After York left, Engelhardt toured as the Byrds' opening act in 1973.)
York, who performed first, delved into his former band's catalog with a series of Byrds covers: "Chimes," which the band included on its 1965 debut album, as well as a pair of tunes popularized by Pete Seeger, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "The Bells of Rhymney." At one point, York touchingly noted that he felt obliged to pass on the music of his generation, due to so many peers having died; the mention of Seeger, who died recently at age 94, drew a smattering of applause.
York's warm, slightly hoarse tenor didn't quite do justice to harder numbers like the Rolling Stones' "Paint It, Black" or Dylan's "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," but it found its element on mellower material — particularly the singer's own "On Whose Door," a ravishing ballad that sounds like it could have been a staple of the Greenwich Village scene half a century ago.
Unlike York, Engelhardt went without lyrics in his compositions, but his wordy introductions gave them enough of a narrative spin. The Laguna Beach resident prefaced a piece called "Sailcat's Lament" with a story of what sailcats were — namely, cats that Coloradans turned into Frisbees after they had been flattened by trucks and sun dried for months.
Another tune, which Engelhardt dubbed "my greatest hit," bears the title "Fire in O'Doodlee's Popcorn Factory," and when the guitarist's fingers ran through a series of staccato plucks, it was easy to picture kernels erupting left and right. For much of Thursday's show, Engelhardt favored hard and fast numbers, and though he joked at one point that "12 things can go wrong" on a 12-string guitar, the performance sounded virtuosic.
For an encore, York and Engelhardt tapped the Byrds' repertoire again for a rambling take on "Eight Miles High" and a tighter "Mr. Spaceman." Engelhardt sang for the first time, providing harmonies, and the twin guitars, weaving together, sounded like three or four.
Like the best folk music, their joint performance evoked friendship as well as harmony, and Dylan or Seeger, ducking in out of the rain, might have been proud.