Better Than: Having to mud through Woodstock
Okay, it's a given that I and everyone else who has ever heard American music am somewhat familiar with the work of Stephen Stills. I mean, how could anyone not be? Whether it was his early days with Buffalo Springfield or the heady time he's spent alongside David Crosby, Graham Nash and Neil Young, Stills has been an integral part of our country's aural landscape. In fact, Stills has attracted legions of hardcore devotees who know both him and his stories inside and out, and Saturday night for some extra insight I brought one along.
My draftee was Frank Imbarlina, Executive Chef of Urbanite Bistro. Frank's caught CSN twice and CSN&Y once, so you might say he's got a little live history with Stills. More importantly Frank's also a musician, and that background gives him an even deeper appreciation of the man and his work.
Prior to Saturday night though Frank had only caught Stills and company in stadiums, so this would be the first time he got to catch the legendary singer-songwriter in a more intimate setting. And from the first chord of "Helplessly Hoping" to the last note of "Love the One Your With" Stills had Frank in the proverbial palm of his well-played hand.
Okay, so Frank says he wasn't completely overtaken by Stills' choice to open with something as mellow as "Helplessly Hoping." But as the set continued even this minor criticism went the way of the dodo. Besides, the crowd didn't seem to mind the mellow beginning. When Stills seconded with "Long May You Run" they minded even less.
By then, though, it was clear that there was a method to Stills' patented madness. Clearly he had chosen to begin with a subtle touch so that he could build on the foundation laid by his catalog of classics.
That's not to say it was all uphill from the get-go. After a short while Stills dismissed his three-piece backing band and stood alone onstage to sing songs such as "Treetop Flyer" (which, because it's about smugglers, "everyone in South Florida can relate to") and "Change Partners" (where alludes to the old and ongoing drama that is CSN&Y) and "Johnny's Garden" (about the man bequeathed to him by Peter Sellers) and, perhaps most hauntingly, "Daylight Again" (which segued into an a cappella verse from "Find the Cost of Freedom").
Then, after a brief break, he returned in strength, and led his band through another hour of classics. By the time he encored with the reprise for "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" and "Love the One Your With" he had, as my pal Frank said, "left everything out there on that stage.
For me, though, it was the solo turn that proved most compelling. To hear this man, who has probably lived five lifetimes for every one of ours, stand alone and wrap his rasp around some of the most identifiable songs ever written, is to hear our aural history laid bare. It's a history that's been wounded, of course, and a history that's not without stains. But it is our history, and it stands.
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My pal Frank says he was most impressed by the way Stills continues to "shred" on the guitar. Me, I find it impossible not to admire the guy simply for surviving to sing another day. No, Stills is not what he once was. (Who is?) But he still is Stephen Stills, the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who can lay claim to some of the most memorable tunes in the Americana songbook. And for that he will always deserve our deepest respect.
Random Detail: Stills kept the working photographers set back from the stage and limited their shooting to the first two songs, after which he donned his glasses so he "could see who's out there." Just goes to show that vanity never dies, no matter how old a man may get.
By the Way: If by chance you missed Stills' stand -- or if you simply wanna relive this one -- his Live at Shepherd's Bush CD/DVD (Rhino) captures pretty much the same set.