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Crosby, Stills & Nash thrill Cleveland with harmony and hits

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Crosby, Stills and Nash in concert, July 18, 2014, Cleveland

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Crosby, Stills & Nash were already legends when they joined forces on their eponymous debut, yielding such golden greats as “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Marrakesh Express.”

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Each of the trio’s constituents was either the front man or principal songwriter in a popular ‘60s group: David Crosby played guitar and sang with The Byrds; Stephen Stills headed up The Buffalo Springfield; and Englishman Graham Nash honed his songwriting chops in The Hollies.

Of course, none of the men (then in their early 20s) could’ve prophesied that their commercial and artistic triumphs as a threesome would rival (if not eclipse) any previous effort, or that they’d still be harmonizing together as CSN some 45 years later.

Crosby, Stills & Nash were therefore regarded as a super-group when they played for an audience of thousands in the fields surrounding Yasgur’s Farm in August 1969. Expectations were lofty for the fledgling folk confab, yet they delivered at Woodstock, and time and time again, issuing one memorable LP after another and watching the decades tick on (unlike the harder-rocking Cream, whose superstar musicians threw in the towel after a comparatively short run).

Bethel was only the beginning for CSN, whose eloquent, acoustic-powered hymns defined a generation (and influence another, in ripple-like fashion). Collaborating with Canadian crooner Neil Young (also of Buffalo Springfield), they spearheaded the singer-songwriter movement of the early ‘70s, paving the way for fellow future icons like James Taylor, Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, and Kenny Loggins. Possessed of angelic voices whose multi-tracked output still conjures seraphim and cherubim, CSN set new standards for anti-establishmentarian anthems, heartfelt ballads, and feel-good pop.

We’d argue that few have done it better since, but such language would suggest their time has come and gone, and that all we’re getting now is fossils—rehashes and retreads.

But CSN isn’t exactly a past-tense proposition. Not yet, anyway.

Fresh off a TV appearance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon (not Johnny Carson, as the case might’ve been eons ago), Crosby, Stills & Nash lived up to their reputation Friday night with another memorable concert at Jacobs Pavilion, offering a smorgasbord of CSN staples alongside standouts from each man’s solo career. There was no escaping the flood tide of nostalgia triggered by the evening’s itinerary, which spotlighted selections long-woven into the fabric of our consciousness. The inclusion of new tracks emphasized the band’s ongoing evolution, however, and one surmised from Nash’s mid-song banter that the stentorian songwriters have little choice when it comes to channeling their muse.

They were born for this.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famers are promoting CSNY: 1974—a CD/DVD box set of vintage concert material—on their current summer tour. But the mustachioed, wispy-haired Crosby (who battled drug addition in the ‘80s and still copes with heart-related issues) agreed that writing new stuff keeps them alive.

Crosby’s latest, Croz, dropped early this year. The sweet-throated singer demonstrated not only his ability to adapt and evolve when dipping into that disc (as on “Radio”), but also his quick wit: When his guitar started feeding back thirty seconds into “What’s Broken,” Crosby switched it for another acoustic and recovered with a dazzling cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Real Good For Free.”

We’re talking Goosebumps City, people.

That’s precisely the sort of resilience CSN has shown over years, repeatedly putting aside whatever personality crises and legal wrangles might arise to, well—as the title of the opening tune suggests—“Carry On.”

Dinosaurs in a digital age? Perhaps.

But sublime renditions of “Long Time Gone,” “Southern Cross,” and “Lay Me Down” evinced that Cleveland was once again bearing witness to the true titans of tunesmithing. And when Stills shuffled out front to crank out one of his many sizzling guitar solos (or when Crosby hit those crystalline high notes, or Nash waxed romantic on electric piano), that pinch-me-I’m-dreaming feeling was palpable.

Looking more like college professors than granola-munching undergrads, the grandfatherly triumvirate sang of choice and chance on “Delta” (from 1982’s Daylight Again), using rivers and oceans to symbolize time’s passage. “Cathedral” (from 1977’s CSN) juxtaposed Catholic altars with the druidic Stonehenge in its solemn scrutiny of religious-motivated killing—and boasted a tag-team keyboard solo courtesy James Raymond (Kurzweil synthesizer) and Todd Caldwell (Hammond organ).

Nash entry “Back Home” paid homage to The Band’s Mark “Levon” Helm, who died in 2012—and any moroseness suggested by the ashes-to-ashes subject matter was offset by Stills’ incendiary duel with co-guitarist Shane Fontayne (Bruce Springsteen, Sting). The guys even used the song’s “Take a load off” lyric as a springboard to segue into Helms’ classic “The Weight” at the conclusion.

The sexagenarian Stills walks with a mild limp these days (possibly aggravated by back problems), and his gravelly voice has lost a little oomph, but the man behind Manassas still cooks on guitar. Wielding a Fender Stratocaster (with a Coca-Cola brown finish) most of the night, Stills ripped on “Don’t Want Lies,” a number he wrote last year with Kenny Wayne Shepherd (in a side project called The Rides). He was in full bad-ass mode on “Bluebird” (from the 1967 record Buffalo Springfield Again), and—despite Crosby and Nash’s tight vocals—transformed Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” into a six-string tour de force.

“I wonder how many times we’ve played here,” remarked Crosby, during his been here, done that preface to “Déjà Vu.”

Nash’s upbeat-but-sad “Military Madness” indicted world governments (specifically our own) for their knee-jerk violence and called for a sea-change in foreign policy. Other “no more war” moments punctuated the set, and though little has changed in Washington, D.C. since Vietnam with respect to war-mongering, Crosby said they still sing about peace because “We don’t like to give up.”

Drummer Steve DiStanislao provided the proper balance of rock and restraint on “Helplessly Hoping, while bassist Kevin McCormick’s subtle grooves underpinned the guitar-and-keyboard mixes on Nash tearjerker “Here For You.”

Everyone had a chance to shine, whether on his instrument or at the microphone. Swaps between guitars (Fender Telecasters, Martin acoustics, and big-bodied Gretchs) were frequent, resulting in visual as well as aural diversity. The entire Crosby, Stills & Nash firm was onstage together most of the time, but occasionally the fellows relieved one another, with one or two principals heading up a song while the third rested in the shadows. On the delicate “Guinnevere,” for example, Crosby and Nash held court as Stills recuperated in the wings, contemplating the Cleveland skyline. The rotational strategy was effective, and assured there was always something cool to see and hear.

The traces of anger heard in Nash’s voice on some of the more politically-charged material revealed his passion. Even in his silver years the ex-Hollie isn’t content to just go through the motions. Performing barefoot, the Renaissance man dedicated the fiery “Burning for the Buddha” to the Tibetan monks now suffering at the hands of Chinese overlords. Nash said he was inspired to write the tune after seeing an image of one such holy man protesting by way of self-immolation.

“I’m a photographer myself,” he explained. “And that image was indelible.”

Indeed, Nash spent the better part of Friday afternoon at the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Parma, where he fielded questions from The Plain Dealer’s Michael Heaton before a packed auditorium. Nash—who collected rare prints in the ‘70s and ‘80s while developing his shutterbug skills—scheduled the extra stop to discuss his new photo memoirs, Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life.

Stills electrified the pavilion with pilot-for-hire hit “Treetop Flyer” as the gargantuan (643 ft.) iron ore freighter Sam Laud navigated a bend in the Cuyahoga River (which winds behind the stage). Seated once more at his electric piano, Nash pounded out a jubilant “Our House,” whose familiar “two cats in the yard” chorus was snatched up and regurgitated by delighted fans. Nash’s change-the-world opus “Chicago” was a showstopper replete with additional guitar heroics from Stills, who then grunged up the psychedelic Springfield smash “For What It’s Worth” with ethereal, reverberated notes. Again, the crowd took up the refrain, echoing the “stop, children, what’s that sound” on cue.

“Love the One You’re With” (another Stills chestnut) was an exuberant sing-along finale, spiraling into another vocal and instrumental band workout that had floor and bleacher patrons up and dancing. The evening’s encore (which, like opener “Carry On” hailed from1970’s Déjà Vu) brought everything—band, audience, and concert (the opener likewise hailed from 1970’s Déjà Vu album) full circle: The life lessons encapsulated in “Teach Your Children” have no expiration date.

And so it would seem with the whole of the Crosby, Stills & Nash catalog. These guys may be “older than dirt” (as Crosby quipped), but their music (and messages contained therein) is timeless.

www.crosbystillsnash.com

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