On the Scene: Easy Rider 50th Anniversary at Radio City Music Hall

The Summer of 2019 may in some ways have closed on a somber note, with most Woodstock ’69 celebrations being largely a bust. But one bright spot was the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper classic film Easy Rider at Radio City Music Hall on September 22. The evening featured a screening the film, with its iconic soundtrack performed live by some of its luminaries, including Steppenwolf’s John Kay and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, whose work is thematically prominent throughout Easy Rider, with notable songs such as “The Ballad of Easy Rider” and “Wasn’t Born to Follow” setting much of the film’s tone and pace.

It was Fonda himself who first conceived the event at Radio City; to that end, he was expected to give the opening statements for the evening. He asked Peter Shapiro—co-founder of Lockn’ Festival and owner of the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY—to help him co-produce the night’s proceedings. But sadly, Peter Fonda passed away on August 16, just a few short weeks before the 50th anniversary celebration could take place. Shapiro—along with Fonda’s widow and other associates—instead gave the opening remarks, which included a brief tribute to the famed actor, before then proceeding with the film.

With the crowd deeply engaged in the opening sequences, lights raised below the massive screen revealing John Kay, dressed largely in black denim, which was accented by a leather vest. He was joined by the evening’s backing band to perform the iconic “The Pusher.” Kay was in fine voice, growling heartily, “Goddamn, the Pusherman!” over the band’s tight groove. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 20: Tash Neal and John Kay perform during a 50th anniversary screening of “Easy Rider” with live musical accompaniment at Radio City Music Hall on September 20, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Dayglo Ventures)

When the heavy metal thunder of “Born to be Wild” hit the crowd of Radio City, some in the audience were not prepared for its force. Films like The Lord of the Rings and others have been screened alongside a live soundtrack before; albeit, those have typically been orchestral performances. Needless to say, some in the front rows of the audience headed toward the back vestibule until the volume came back down to Earth. The house band was led by T-Bone Burnett, and they ran through laudable versions of some of the soundtrack’s clear-cut anthems, psychedelic jams, and music comedy of the times, like The Band’s “The Weight,” Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Were 9,” and the goofy “Don’t Bogart Me (aka Don’t Bogart That Joint”) by The Fraternity of Man. The evening’s arrangements were all performed dutifully as enjoyable counterparts to an unconventional film experience.

Looking slightly glitzy in a black tailored suit and matching fedora, Roger McGuinn showcased his folk rock mastery with skill and precision. Perhaps because of the necessity of keep up with the film, McGuinn seemed to hold the band back at times, which kept the songs from really rollicking along freely. Still though, McGuinn showed the crowd at Radio City why his music and motif still remains vital today

It was hard not to notice the slim turnout at Radio City, with half the auditorium being empty, suggesting the wind may have been taken out of the event’s sails once its intended Master of Ceremonies had passed on. That said, those in attendance thoroughly enjoyed themselves, unanimously confirming that, fifty years later, Easy Rider and its soundtrack are still riveting examples of American modern art.