There is just a little trepidation going to see a show by a legendary rock band, with the members’ ages now hovering around an average of 70. A Crosby, Stills and Nash concert has always been kind of like the old nursery rhyme: When they were good, they were very, very good, but when they were bad, they were off-key, wasted, or, in Stephen Stills’ case, voiceless.
Well, forget all that. Crosby, Stills and Nash blew the doors off the Barbara Mann Performing Arts Hall Tuesday night, not with volume but with sheer musicianship, leaving no doubt why they are considered among the greatest rock groups of all time. In a three hour-plus performance, they delivered many of their iconic hits, some straight and some newly adapted, plus a selection of well-received new songs. They played intensely but relaxed between numbers, engaging in banter with each other and the audience, and seemed to be having a great time.
The crowd was with the band 100 percent from the opening chords of “Carry On,” the first number, giving them standing ovations after many songs and even during them to mark a memorable solo. Clearly, this music meant a great deal to the audience members, taking them back to a younger time.
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When stagehands rolled out a piano for Graham Nash to play “Our House,” and David Crosby invited the crowd to sing along, momentarily silencing the band, even the audience turned in a good performance, forming a credible mass chorus complete with harmony. Everyone seemed to know all the words.
Harmony is the hallmark of CSN, along with re-integration of the acoustic guitar into mainstream rock music, and the moments of what they once called “wooden music” shone as some of the highlights of the evening. “Guinevere,” with just Crosby and Nash singing with Crosby’s unaccompanied guitar, was a beautiful example of the “less is more” doctrine.
Those two handled most of the close harmony work, as they have for years, with Nash taking on the Steve Stills part in the opening of “Wooden Ships.” Stills’ voice, which always had a distinctive rasp, even when he sang most of the lead vocals for the early CSN and Buffalo Springfield, is now terminally husky. But he sang more Tuesday night than for many of the band’s tours this millennium, taking the lead on his compositions including “Southern Cross” and “Bluebird,” and totally killing a solo rendition of “Treetop Flier,” an ode to “square grouper” and pot-smuggling pilots, Stills declared.
“Where better to pull that one out than here?” he asked, acknowledging the show’s location on the edges of the Everglades, a favored area for drug runners. The band may have known where they were, but not everyone got the memo; the official tour T-shirt spelled the venue as “Ft. Meyers.”
The song was a showcase for Stills’ amazing guitar chops, as he performed “swamp licks” on his Stratocaster, pulling colors and effects out of the instrument not available to lesser mortals.
“Damn, I wish I could play guitar like that,” said Crosby after the song. “If I didn’t love him, I’d hate him.” Nash just pointed at Stills and called him “one of the greatest lead guitarists on the planet” — not a claim, an acknowledgment.
The three frontmen went through dozens of guitar changes during their set, often changing axes after each number, with techs handing each players the guitar with the right sound or tuning for the next song.
So many classic rock acts now tour with replacement players, it is noteworthy that CSN still features all original members miraculous in the case of David Crosby, with his history of medical issues, drug abuse and jail time. He may be on his second liver, but the vocal cords are original, and in remarkable shape, as he demonstrated on his songs including “Long Time Coming,” “Déjà Vu,” and “Almost Cut My Hair.”
Early on in the show, a girl called out “Almost cut my hair!” and he shot back, “Don’t do it!”
The trio Stills, Nash, and Crosby, from left to right, as viewed from the house were supported by a rhythm section of five talented musicians, comprising bass, drums, organ, keyboards and guitar. It is a little mind-boggling to think of being the extra guitarist in a band featuring three guitar players, one of whom is Stephen Stills, but all were, as you would expect, excellent players. And all given chances to solo, with the show even featuring a song written by keyboardist James Raymond. The band also contributed backing vocals.
Sometimes the mix allowed the rhythm section to compete with the stars, but there were plenty of moments to cherish.
True to their tradition, the band mixed a little politics and social consciousness with the music, although Crosby called it “patriotism, not politics.” Nash’s new song “Burning for the Buddha” hailed the 128 Tibetan monks who have immolated themselves to protest Chinese government policy.
The two also sang a short and sweet a cappella duet illuminating Crosby’s theme that “I don’t think the guys who wrote the Constitution meant that the guy with the biggest TV budget should get the keys to the kingdom.” This was reinforced by a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption out in front of the hall after the show, which stamped (and returned) concertgoers’ dollars with “Not to be used for bribing politicians,” and promoted a Constitutional amendment to that effect.
By the end of the night, the audience was blissed out, and ecstatic when the trio returned with an encore of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” a Stephen Stills song written for Judy Collins that had been absent from their set lists for years.
The tour just began in Orlando on May 5, and the only U.S. locations are all in the south, after which the band heads to Europe for the summer. Now that “sex, drugs and rock and roll” has been redefined as Viagra and oldies on the iPod, we couldn’t ask for a more accomplished group of musical ambassadors for the glories of American classic rock.