Saturday, July 19, 2014

Long Time Coming: CSNY 1974

CSNY 1974: Proof of Purchase
I was 15 years old when David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young (CSNY) reunited for their "Doom Tour" in the summer of 1974.  I vaguely knew of the quartet at that age.  I had heard "Ohio" and "Teach Your Children." The only other tune I had heard by any of the musicians was Neil's 1971 number one hit single "Heart of Gold."  For me the quartet was just another nebulous musical style among many others. In those early high school years I was really more into a dozen other bands or musicians.

I was in college before I listened to CSNY's Déjà Vu album. But after that I recall quickly acquiring 4 Way Street and, suddenly, I had a complete CSNY collection.  This was also about the same time my awareness of Neil broadened.  I would become a full-fledged Rustie in 1979 but by then CSNY was no more, temporarily.  The way my musical tastes evolved, my full appreciation of CSNY as a musical force came after my awareness of Neil Young blossomed.  Neil was my path into CSNY.  Only later did I become interested in the skills of the other three members.

Jennifer and I saw CSNY in Atlanta (an infamous concert) during their 2006 Freedom of Speech tour, which was very Neil-heavy in terms of content as it featured his Living With War album. That performance was impressive.  They played for over 3 hours with only a short break. Everything sounded great.  Crosby and Nash's harmonies on the classic CSNY material were amazing. Stills and Young traded numerous virtuoso riffs on lead guitar.  The concert was divided into a traditional CSNY format - an electric set followed by a lengthy acoustical set followed by a more intensely rocking third set.

Now I have almost everything these four musicians have recorded in their various combinations and as solo artists. Naturally, I would rank Neil above them all but Stills and Crosby both have a lot of noteworthy material. Nash is a talented vocalist and many of his songs are catchy and fun.  He falls flat when he tries to be too serious though, in my opinion, his material is too much like cotton candy. In small portions it is OK but in larger amounts it is just too sweet for my tastes.

Back in the early 1970's the mere mention of CSNY got impassioned results.  There were very few "supergroups" in music back then.  The Beatles disbanded early on.  The Rolling Stones were of that caliber.  The Who and Led Zeppelin certainly come to mind.  CSNY had a turbulent on-again, off-again history that led to a lot of friction and very little actual recorded material.  But when they rallied to tour in 1974 they were most certainly an elite superband act.

The numbers of the 1974 tour give you some sense of how popular these guys were at the time.  The smallest audience they performed for was about 32,000.  The largest crowd was in Cleveland where 82,000 gathered, the largest non-sporting event in that city's history.  Most of the audiences ranged between 50,000 and 75,000, night after night for a bit over two months during that summer.

Although there had been large tours before (the Beatles in the 1960's) and huge concerts before (Woodstock, for example) nothing of this scale had been previously attempted;  to fill so many of the stadiums and coliseums in America, Canada, and the United Kingdom with rock and roll fans seeking to imbibe on their hippy idols.  For the four members of CSNY it was an opportunity to make over $1 million dollars each for about nine weeks work.  Everybody, the promoters, the road crew, the managers, thought they would make a lot of fast money.

They all huddled up to rehearse at Neil's ranch in California. The original set lists were sprawling with 44 songs, much of it new material.  None of them were interested in just doing their "traditional" songs and hits. Older material was reworked into new arrangements. As the tour wore on, the excess of the lists became an issue.  No two concerts were the same. The set lists were constantly being trimmed and rearranged. 

Logistics became an issue.  Moving all the equipment from massive venue to massive venue was unprecedented.  The sound technology itself became an issue. Capturing the performances with quality sound before audiences that size was beyond what speakers and amps were capable of delivering in outdoor venues at the time.  The sound quality was especially hampered by weather; wind and rain interfered with many of their concerts.

The band members, so unified and upbeat in the beginning, became adversarial before then end. Part of it was the undercurrent of gigantic egos that are naturally a part of any superband.  Part of it was frustration due to the fact they were not achieving what they had envisioned artistically. By the time the tour mercifully ended in the UK they all went their separate ways and no one was interested in even thinking about the music they had produced, much of it of inferior quality due to the mix of weather elements, discord between the foursome, and all that cocaine and pot they were all infamously consuming.  They were pretty messed up onstage most of the time.

It was an excessive, overindulgent mess that never really jelled...or so the music world thought and was told over the past four decades.  But the tour never quite left the minds of the quartet, especially that of Graham Nash.  It seemed a shame to leave this moment in rock history, the first true superband tour, completely silent and undocumented.  The tour was not completely recorded.  In fact, it began with no intention to record anything.  But nine of 31 shows were captured on 16-track soundboard recordings.  So, Nash and Neil's archivist Joel Bernstein began listening to the old tapes again, cleaning stuff up and making the best performances sound of the highest quality.

The result was released a few days ago.  I bought CSNY 1974 in its Blu-ray version to ensure the best sound.  And it does sound very rich and nuanced. The boxed set is nicely packaged, and is accompanied by a DVD featuring videos of eight songs performed during the tour.  Watching these guys perform as they were 40 years younger is a real treat.  It all comes with a superb 186-page book packed full of excellent photos, many never seen before, along with an excellent, detailed essay that served as the basis for much of what I wrote above. Other perks in the booklet include an exact listing for each instrument performed by each musician on each track of the 40 songs included in this lengthy and extensive presentation.

Then there is the music itself, over three hours of it, beautifully remastered, showing the strengths and the weaknesses of the performances, a true historic record in every sense.  Since the tour was chiefly about new material by the four musicians, several of these tunes have never been released until now, and many more songs included were recorded on various non-CSNY albums following the tour in 1975 and 1976.  The previously unreleased material is not always rock-solid but it is remarkable for documenting where this band was in this time, the enormous amount of creative potential there, and even the occasional moment when all four were on the same page in splendid sync and really moving the audience with their collective talent and unique chemistry.

The CD edition of CSNY 1974 devotes one disc to each set of music while the Blu-ray offers it as a continuous, navigable 3-plus hour performance. If you listen to it all the way through it is mixed as if you were there for the concert.  The opening electric set starts out with "Love the One Your With" which is pretty decent.  "Wooden Ships" follows it and it is an OK version.  Crosby is terrific as he plays off the harmonies of the other three on a delightful "Carry Me." As the set wears on, however, most of the material seems flat or slightly uneven to me.

Generally speaking, when CSNY is offering new material the songs are stronger.  When they are covering their previous material from around 1970 they sound more like an imitation of themselves, with variations that are interesting but are nonetheless inferior to versions I have elsewhere in my collection.  "Johnny's Garden" (bootleg here) and "Almost Cut My Hair" are the strongest tunes in the set. Of particular interest as a Neil fan is the inclusion of "On the Beach" (bootleg here) in the first set, the title song of Neil's latest album at the time, opportunistically released just as the tour started. So this was another brand new tune. It is great to hear this CSNY version but it isn't as good as how Neil does it on his studio album.

The acoustic set is the finest part of the collection.  "Change Partners" gets it going and it is a fine vocal arrangement with Crosby, Stills, and Young all playing Martin acoustic guitars. "The Lee Shore" is a beautiful work, well-played, featuring not only that incomparable Crosby-Nash harmony but the entire band in a jazzy acoustic rock style: percussion, bass, and drums supporting Neil and Crosby on acoustic guitars with Stills on a subdued electric; one of the best songs in this collection.  Likewise, Neil's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" is an awesome version featuring the whole band.  "Our House" is enthusiastically received by the crowd, a triumph for Nash, followed by his finest solo performance on the collection, "Fieldworker" on piano.

The set isn't perfect, there a couple of weaker moments, including "Hawaiian Sunrisea Neil song heard here for the first time ever. Like "Traces" in the first set, it is just mediocre really.  But the twin duo performances of "Guinevere" (Crosby-Nash) and "Long May You Run" (Stills-Young) are wonderfully comparable and representative of the group's range.  "Long May You Run" would be a mild hit for Neil in 1976.  "Mellow My Mind", on the other hand, would be recorded on Neil's holy grail album Tonight's the Night in 1975.  I prefer that edgy dissonant version to the CSNY version. But on the Blu-ray Neil is playing solo banjo as the rest of the quartet sings harmony.  It smooths the tune out nicely and is really a more accessible and pleasurable version of the song than my preferred rendering on Neil's cultish album in the ditch.

Neil is supported by the drummer (Russ Kunkel) and the bass player (Tim Drummond) and Nash's voice in this version of "Old Man".  I must have 25 versions of "Old Man" and they are all excellent, this one is no exception.  A terrific performance. But this is only a foreshadowing of what Stephen Stills proceeds to come out and do in his solo section.  He performs a blistering "Word Game" on acoustic guitar and then he creates one of the collection's true highlights.  Stills released "Myth of Sisyphus" on Stills in 1975.  But that version does not really compare with what he does on this newly released recording.  As cliche as it sounds, this is a spellbinding performance.

A cover of the Beatles' "Blackbird" is next.  Man, this really sounds fine.  Classic, very tight and very smooth, Crosby, Stills, and Nash harmonies.  As if to bring a bit of bite back into the set this smoothness is followed by another previously unreleased Neil song, "Love Art Blues."  This country-blues tune is really the best of Neil's unreleased material on the collection; a fun song to listen to and the group gives us a flawless rendition.  The acoustic set closes with "Teach Your Children" and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", which are both just OK.

In the final set, the electric music returns and is overall stronger and more interesting than the first set.  "Deja Vu" is nice new arrangement where Neil swaps guitar riffs with Stills before transferring to Steinway piano to play keyboard lead dueling with Stills on guitar; something worth hearing for sure. As a side note, Nash, Stills, and Neil all take turns at the keyboards throughout the concert.  The keyboards are always mixed equal to the guitars and are not relegated to a backing instrument. Whoever is on piano or organ at the time is matching skills with the lead guitarist.  There is plenty of really fine guitar-keyboard jamming on this collection.

There is no better example of that than "My Angel," where Crosby plays electric rhythm guitar as both Stills and Neil trade lead on keyboards. Another highlight of the Blu-ray. The final set offers the only official digital version of Neil's "Don't Be Denied" that exists on the planet.  This track comes from his rough Time Fades Away album, which has never been released since its original vinyl pressing in 1973.  So, as a Neil collector, I am happy to have this version, which, with this group's skill set, is far better in my mind than what is on the original album.

This is followed by another high point in the collection. "Revolution Blues" is also from Neil's then-new album.  I wish it were a couple of minutes longer to allow for more jamming but overall the group totally nails this number. Though shorter it is better than the On the Beach rendering.  This is the best version of this tune I know of.  Crosby, Stills, and Neil create a driving wall of rocking sound with their three guitars and the crowd roars at the end of this powerfully energetic performance, probably the largest applause this song ever got; a fantastic example of how Neil could be so good with these other three guys.

Skipping over several other weaker or just OK performances I want to highlight "Pushed It Over the Edge," yet another previously unreleased song by Neil.  Here Neil manages to do something I would not have thought possible.  He makes CSNY sound like Neil with his long-time garage band Crazy Horse.  Musically it is just OK though it is essential for a Neil collector like myself.  It is unlikely this song will ever be preformed again and this is its only official release.

The concert closes with an OK version of "Ohio", which was obviously a crowd pleaser at the time, though this not the finest moment for this Neil number.  Overall, out of the 40 songs included, 13 are Neil's and 5 of those are new releases. So while this is definitely a CSNY effort, Neil and Stills, dominate the collection with their new material, evidence of what a tremendously creative, and consequently fractious, force they were within the group dynamic.

While most of the material is worthy and a few songs are exceptional, a lot of the playing on here is just passable though listenable.  I suppose that is an accurate representation of the tour and one reason why after it was over the group just felt like they never sounded consistently as good as they wanted. They are all four perfectionists and these musical selections, with some exceptions, are not perfect.  But it is also difficult to be perfect when you are breaking new ground both in terms of the music performed and pushing the limits of technology in delivering it to the enormous audiences.

Still, I would recommend CSNY 1974 to any music lover.  As I said, it is a superbly packaged historic document of a great band coming together in the summer of 1974 with mixed results.  But the music here is simply too good to be withheld from the general public for 40 years. CSNY was, and still is now and then, one of the pillars of American rock and roll. As David Crosby sings: "It's been a long time coming..." for this material to see the light of day.  For the most part it was worth the wait.

40 years ago today, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young performed to a sold-out Royals Stadium, Harry S. Truman Sports Complex, in Kansas City, Missouri. It was the sixth concert of the tour - which ended in Wembley Stadium, Middlesex, England in mid-September.  Also 40 years ago today marks the release of Neil's second ditch album On the Beach, though the album's wiki link says it was released on the 16th.

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