9/18/2012

Crosby, Stills and Nash: Carrying On Through Four Decades

On the evening of September 12, 2012, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash brought many of their well-known songs, along with much of their colorful and well-worn history, to their outstanding performance at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, which was another stop on a long tour that has kept them on the road since the early part of the year. For those of us in the audience (especially those who came of age in the 1960s), it was a happy occasion of time-tested music and valued memories, centered on the three men who stood next to one another at the front of the stage, as they have been doing, on and off, for most of their lifetimes.

When Crosby (formerly with The Byrds), Stills (formerly with Buffalo Springfield), and Nash (formerly with The Hollies) first got together in Laurel Canyon, near Hollywood in Los Angeles, to make new music in 1968, a host of high hopes was attached to their union. The ambitious threesome (two Americans, Crosby and Stills, and an Englishman, Nash) already had succeeded in establishing themselves as musicians and songwriters with their earlier bands. By combining their proven abilities (sometimes with expert assistance from the voice and guitar of Neil Young, a Canadian musician who also had been a member of Buffalo Springfield), they stepped to the forefront of their generation and created a musical bond that has endured for more than forty years.

At the time of its release in 1969, the knowing sentiments and painstaking harmonies contained within the ten tracks on the first album by Crosby, Stills and Nash were quickly taken to heart by millions of young listeners, providing a tuneful background for both romance and protest. (In my own case, those tracks still remind me of my first girlfriend in high school, and also of seeing CSN perform in Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco, during a demonstration against the war in Vietnam.) It seemed that the songs of Crosby, Stills and Nash spoke not only for the musicians themselves, but for all us who honestly believed (however quaint it might sound in 2012) that love and peace were preferable to hate and war.

During their performance in Portland, the three musicians displayed all of the singular elements that first brought them to fame. In 2012, as in 1969, the strength of their musicianship (particularly the skillful manner in which they blend their voices) and the depth of their compositions (each of them has written a number of praiseworthy songs) is beyond dispute. They began the evening with an extended rendering of "Carry On," delivered with a degree of vigorous assurance that can be found only in musicians who have a mature command of their own talent. Next came "Chicago," with Graham Nash forcefully leading on vocals and piano, followed by "Long Time Gone," which featured David Crosby singing his bold words ("Speak your mind, if you dare," written in response to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968) with ardent conviction.

Over the course of three hours, CSN played some of the most celebrated songs from their past, including "Just a Song Before I Go," "Southern Cross," "Marrakesh Express," "Bluebird" (written by Stills, from his days with Buffalo Springfield), "Deja Vu" (another extended rendering, with each of the backup musicians having a few moments in the spotlight), "Love the One You're With," "You Don't Have to Cry" (one of several songs inspired by the ill-fated love affair between Stills and Judy Collins), "What Are Their Names," "Guinnevere" (with beautiful vocals from Crosby and Nash), "Daylight Again," "Cathedral," "49 Bye-Byes," "Our House," "Almost Cut My Hair," and "Wooden Ships" (which was given a heavy workout on electric guitars). They also offered a handful of newer songs, "Lay Me Down," "Radio," "Almost Gone (The Ballad of Bradley Manning)," and "In Your Name," along with a heartfelt performance of Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country."

The band behind CSN, comprising Shane Fontayne on guitar, Kevin McCormick on bass, Todd Caldwell on organ, James Raymond on keyboards, and Steve DiStanislao on drums, supplied a steady foundation that was sharp and powerful, but also flexible. CSN themselves were in excellent form. David Crosby's rich voice sounded as strong as ever, able to rise from a whisper to a roar and back again. Stephen Stills retains his unmistakable touch on guitar, whether soaring in full flight or playing with a more studied tone, ably serving the needs of each song. Graham Nash, at the age of seventy, is an extremely youthful figure, as nimble and as bouncy as any man could hope to be at his time of life. Only his white hair gives him away.

Through four decades of performing and recording, together and apart, the gifted members of CSN have impressively succeeded in maintaining both the freshness and the appeal of their songs, wisely choosing to follow a musical path of quality and integrity. When they closed their evening in Portland with a rousing encore consisting of "For What It's Worth" (a hit by Buffalo Springfield in 1967) and "Teach Your Children" (one of the songs, written by Nash, that Crosby referred to as "anthems") it was clear that David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash continue to be unreservedly, and quite unashamedly, committed to the peaceable beliefs and open-minded outlook of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A memory of a performance by The Byrds in 1967 here  

A memory of a performance by Judy Collins and Stephen Stills in 1969 here