Sunday, September 7, 2014

Crosby, Stills & Nash - Live 2014.08.28 The Long Center, Austin, Texas

Artist: Crosby, Stills & Nash
Venue: The Long Center
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 28 August 2014

Set 1:
01. Carry On/Questions [originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young]
02. Marrakesh Express
03. Long Time Gone
04. Southern Cross
05. Just a Song Before I Go
06. Delta
07. Don't Want Lies [The Rides cover]
08. Back Home [new song by Graham Nash] → The Weight [partial; The Band cover]
09. To the Last Whale: Critical Mass [Tape] / Wind on the Water [originally performed by Crosby & Nash]
10. Our House [originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young]
11. Déjà Vu [originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young]
12. Bluebird [originally performed by Buffalo Springfield]

Set 2:
13. Helplessly Hoping
14. Girl from the North Country [Bob Dylan cover]
15. I'll Be There for You [originally performed by Graham Nash]
16. What Makes It So [new song by David Crosby]
17. What Are Their Names [originally performed by David Crosby]
18. Guinnevere
19. I Used to Be a King [originally performed by Graham Nash; performed with Shawn Colvin]
20. Burning for the Buddha [new song by Graham Nash]
21. Almost Cut My Hair [originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young]
22. Wooden Ships
23. For What It's Worth [originally performed by Buffalo Springfield]
24. Love the One You're With [originally performed by Stephen Stills]

25. Teach Your Children [originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young]

When I saw CSN just about two years ago in Kentucky, they were in good form and put on a great show. They played just about every classic I could have asked for and threw in some new tunes as well, which actually went over quite well. The five-member backing band seemed excessive, but having a solid team is hardly a crime.

It's worth remembering, though, that that tour was actually originally supposed to have a very different form. In fact, it was supposed to be a 30-date tour of a reunited Buffalo Springfield. After Neil Young backed out, Crosby and Nash invited Stephen Stills to join their planned tour as a duo, and so the summer tour was reconfigured for the CSN trio format. (Does this remind anyone of a few past moments in history involving Neil Young and Stephen Stills?)

More recently, while CSNY were preparing to release the CSNY 1974 box set, it would seem that almost everyone involved was hoping for a full quartet reunion tour to promote the album. (For example, examine the hopeful thinking of Graham Nash and David Crosby.) Unsurprisingly, a certain member was apparently uninterested, so it was left to the other three to do the job. And thus we have another CSN tour!

At face value, the show was very similar to the one I saw two years ago. The setlists share most of the same classic material (and in almost the same order), the same backing musicians were present, Graham Nash was again barefoot, Crosby again claimed one of the musicians was from the area (this time James Raymond, obviously not true), Stills played just about every guitar solo, Crosby and Nash were responsible for the harmonies, and so on. In practice, though, the night was quite different. Because of the many similarities, I won't rehash what I already covered thoroughly last time, but rather focus on the differences.

First of all, the crowd was possibly the oldest audience I've ever seen. Even last time I saw CSN, there were still plenty of younger people to offset the baby boomer bias. But in Austin, a town where young people simply cannot stop moving, and a town known for such a lively, abundant, and young music scene, I've never before seen a show where I might've been the youngest person I saw. Even bands accused of being nostalgia acts, like Paul McCartney or the Monkees, attracted a large cross-section of all ages.

But more importantly, once the band started playing, it was clear something was off. Specifically, that something was Stephen Stills' voice. Although he might have struggled two years ago, it wasn't really a problem then. It is now. He couldn't enunciate anything. Most of his songs ended up as a garbled mess, where words were only decipherable if someone else was singing harmony. Stills could usually hold a tune, but sometimes he seemed to forget his lines, making his mumbling all the worse. He let Nash take most of his parts on "Wooden Ships" (like last time), but he had the audacity to mock Bob Dylan at one point, impersonating his hypothetical take on "Helplessly Hoping", but in fact sounding like an accurate representation of himself! The lowest points were probably his cover versions ("Don't Want Lies", which Stills co-wrote, and Dylan's "Girl from the North Country"). Both were sung with little or no harmony additions, and their relative unfamiliarity in the CSN canon made it impossible to parse the words.

Not helping anything were Stills' guitar leads. Last time around I thought he played excellently, even if his style was a bit indulgent. This time, indulgence was the order of the day. He could play fine, but his parts weren't as compelling, and his need to take the lead on almost every song began to drag them down with the excess weight. For some odd reason, he had a weird little slide part that he tried to fit into every single solo, regardless of how well it fit the mood or rhythm. Rarely did it fit, and often he couldn't even get it right, so it stuck out awkwardly almost every time. "Bluebird" was the worst offender, as Stills could not be stopped, no matter how bad his solos got. He spent minutes stuck on doing simple volume swells before descending into the depths of drunken blooze cliché.

At least Nash and Crosby held up well… mostly. Nash's new songs "Back Home" (a tribute to Levon Helm) and "Burning for the Buddha" (in honor of self-immolating Tibetan monks) were decent, and Crosby's new song "What Makes It So" was good, too. But the point of using the recorded tape of "Critical Mass" to introduce "To the Last Whale" is lost on me. Also, Nash's latter-day "I'll Be There for You" was positively one of the worst songs I've ever heard from a professional musician. In general, Nash's abilities have held up as well as ever, and he can still hit every harmony perfectly on cue. Crosby, though, honestly surprised me with how well he could sing. It may have been the best I've ever heard from him. He was powerful and hit notes that I don't think I've heard from him before. The strength of his voice was probably the high point of the night.

Among the many oddities of the show was the surprise appearance of Shawn Colvin to sing the lead of Nash's wonderful "I Used to Be a King". Less exciting was whatever excuse was necessary to extend Déjà Vu into an unending mess with seven (!) instrumental solos – one for each backing musician, bookended by more of Stills' indulgence. And while I was disappointed that "Guinnevere" was performed at a snail's pace, I was pleased with the minor rearrangements of "Almost Cut My Hair" and "Wooden Ships". However, on the latter, the band shed any subtlety of the line, "Who won the war?" by answering it themselves with, "No one!"

"For What It's Worth" still resounds strongly today, especially in the wake of events like the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. Conversely, "Love the One You're With" sounds increasingly cynical and seems an odd choice for a singalong song. And I have to admit, when the band came out for the encore, having again ignored the same two obvious choices as last time I saw them, I was disappointed when they left after "Teach Your Children", leaving "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" for another day. I doubt Stills could have done it justice, anyway.

Score: C-

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!

P.P.S. I was also annoyed that Nash claimed that Stephen Stills wrote "Southern Cross". It is well-known that the song is based off The Curtis Brothers' "Seven League Boots" and thus they are credited as cowriters.

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