Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Crosby, Stills & Nash 2012 - Live and Alive, The War Is Over

Stephen Stills has finally made an album that shows why Neil Young could never really resist the temptation to go toe to toe with him as an axeman. David Crosby finally shows us why he might well be the finest jazz singer America has yet produced. Graham Nash? Well, Graham Nash has kept this wooden ship afloat for over 40 years, hasn't he? As always, he sings amazingly well, and reminds us that The Hollies gave their best songwriter to America - can anyone not listen to Our House when it comes on the radio, and not sing along?

CSN 2012 is the new CD/DVD by Crosby, Stills, & Nash, and it's about damned time they made a great live album. This career covering collection offers up 25 great tunes, but more notably it contains 15 bona fide classics that could be agreed on by any lover of rock. I have to think that if you played this set to any one of the band thirty years ago and told them it was them at 60, they would have been pretty pleased. If every fan of the band would just give this set one listen, all would be forgiven. I'm guessing this document will even make Neil smile.

When discussing CS&N there are always three things discussed - singing, songwriting, and personal problems. I'm going to change that today by substituting Stephen Stills guitar playing for the personal problems, hell - there's books you can read about those.

Stills kicks the album into gear on set-opener Carry On/Questions with a fuzzed out salvo that is gloriously noisy in the way that makes you think his amplifier really might explode. And as brilliant as the intro is, it's his solo that makes you wonder why this guy's name isn't bandied about more often when the greats are being discussed - if Hendrix can hear this, he's smiling from ear to ear. I'm kind of pissed that Stephen won't reveal what he's using to overdrive his vintage tweed Fender Bassman, but whatever it is, it is amazing. He's playing like a guy that still has something to prove, and he's proving it. With the help of bassist Kevin McCormick (Melissa Ethridge, Jackson Browne), drummer Steve DiStanislao (Joe Walsh, David Gilmour), and organist Todd Caldwell, Stills turns Wooden Ships into a hard rocking, Hendrixian piece of guitar rock, and he solos like a man on fire as all the while the trio reminds us how brilliantly and beautifully they sing together.

Helplessly Hoping will have everyone who has ever heard it smiling as at long last everyone is not just on the same stage, but also on the same page. Crosby and Nash provide the perfect accompaniment to Stills's lyric poetry. The voices blend like fine wine that's aged and mellowed to a wonderful bouquet - not as bright and sparkly as in 1969, but with a warmth then never imagined.

David Crosby has called Guinnevere his finest composition, and there's no argument here. It stands as one of the most, if not the most inventive American guitar ballad. Structurally a very complex song, it features an unconventional tuning (E B D G A D) that lends itself to ambiguous chords with no fixed tonal center, complex fingerpicking, fluid time and tempo changes, and we haven't even gotten to Crosby's lyrics, which tell the tale of three of his lovers (only two of which he ever named). If this ain't jazz, how come Miles covered it? This might be my favorite rendition - it finally sounds its age.

CSN cover a lot of territory in terms of stylistic diversity - they alternately bounce between hippy jam band, folk minstrels, and progressive songcraft. Deja Vu masterfully runs the gamut - spacey rock at its best, killer singing, another mindblower of a guitar solo from Stills, and even some soulful harmonica. The band flexes its muscles so well on these tunes, especially organist Todd Caldwell. I've never heard CSN sound so much like a true band.

Marrakesh Express gets a swinging treatment that brings to mind not only what Jerry Garcia loved about CSN, but also displays exactly why Graham Nash took this tune with him to California when his brethren in The Hollies rejected the song. Nash later sits down at the piano and blows my mind when I realize that at 69 years old he sings and plays Our House as well as ever. Crosby's low harmonies are exemplary, and sublime in their tenderness.

My favorite moment comes very near the end, in the middle of a stunning rendition of Suite: Judy Blue Eyes - as the trio comes out of the chorus at the five minute mark, Stills plays some passing chords and fills on his twelve string (tuned E E E E B E - a tuning Stills calls the 'Bruce Palmer Modal Tuning') before gently cascading into George Harrison's raga rock masterpiece, Within You, Without You. It's a beautiful moment, and a reminder of the fact that CSN were entwined with all that made rock great, long before they stumbled through so many years of strife and tribulation. Graham Nash says, slightly off mic, "God bless you, George," and Stills leads the band back into the final verse before going magisterially into the song's famous Cubanesque salsa finish. It's the perfect ending to a set that at long last delivers a soul satisfying live set from one the planet's most talented and enigmatic entities.

If this is where Crosby, Stills, and Nash have landed after over forty years, I don't know how anyone could complain. They're singing well, they are harmoniously in sync as performers, and Stephen Stills even makes it a thrill for the guitar fans - CSN 2012 deserves to be heard by every fan the band ever alienated, and every fan that has loyally waited for this moment. Now, if they could just get back into the studio with Neil Young one more time - I know, I'm both demanding and a dreamer.

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