Beards, Blazers and Bald Spots: CSNY
Fine. I'll be the first one to admit it. These guys are not in their prime. In fact, I'm not sure if Graham Nash ever even had a prime. Either way I don't care. In spite of the fact that Stephen Stills wears more Hawaiian shirts than a fat insurance salesman from Iowa taking his first vacation to the big island. In spite of the fact that David Crosby looks identical to the walrus from Alice in Wonderland. In spite of the fact that some of Neil Young's lyrics from Living With War might be some of the most simplistic and hastily cranked out anti-war lyrics ever written. All that matters to me is that even in their 60s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young live can still blow 99 percent of bands today out of the water. End of story.
I'd never been to a CSNY concert before, but I knew what I was getting myself into. A greatest hits show interspersed with tracks from Young's new disc, Living With War, and a crowd predominantly filled with aging hippies. I think there were more bald spots per capita at this show than any other that I've been to in my life. Needless to say, there's nothing more sad than people about to become eligible for social security, getting wrecked and dancing in the aisles to "Our House." Furthermore, no amount of drugs can sedate you to the sight of said hippies, turned yuppies in designer clothing and the latest electronic gadets on their hip, chanting "fuck Bush," while sipping on a $100 bottle of wine from Patina. Rock N' Roll man!!
My point is, as much as I lament the predominantly hipstery crowds that tend to frequent the concerts I attend, I'll take a bearded and bespectacled Art Brut fan any day over this rat-pack of "Moms With Low Self Esteem" and "Dads Gone Corny."
Trivial mockery aside, nothing else matters much when Neil Young is on-stage, the essential "Y" part of the CSNY equation. As far as I'm concerned, people have two choices for the greatest living songwriter. Neil Young or Bob Dylan. (and I'm not the only one). Say what you want about Bruce Springsteen, he can't touch the other two. It's not a knock against Bruce, that's just the way it is. Then again, I've never been a Springsteen guy, so I'm biased.
Despite the fact that I own roughly 20 Neil Young albums, I'd never seen him perform live other than a cover of "In My Room," that he did at a Brian Wilson tribute a few years ago. (which made up for the fact that he followed the Backstreet Boys...I kid you not).
So what I saw last Monday at the Hollywood Bowl was nothing short of revelation. Even at his advanced age, Neil Young might remain the greatest guitarist on the planet, as he delivered a wild riot of thrashing raw guitar licks traded off effortlessly with partner Stephen Stills.
Rumor Has It These Guys Like the Hippy Grass
I'll say one thing about a CSNY concert. They might be wildly overpriced at $65 with Ticketmaster extortion costs for the cheapest seats, but you definitely leave feeling like you got your money's worth. Running three hours, not including an intermission, the only dull points of the set were when Crosby, Stills and Young felt bad for sad-sack Graham Nash and let him perform his own songs. The only positive point about watching Graham Nash play his corny and saccarine garble was getting to see aging hippies dance rhythmlessly. Seriously, watching them dance looked like a propaganda film trying to sway white people to never dance again.
Everyone knows the reason why Nash got in the band: he and Crosby do harmony well. Real well if you ask Crosby. And he's probably right as this talent was on display on Monday. Shockingly, the voices of the bandmates have held up well over the years. Despite the fact that David Crosby has done more drugs than any other living person on the planet (Keith Richards excluded.)
Graham Nash and David Crosby Singing "Almost Cut My Hair"
As the picture above shows, Crosby's high point of the show came on "Almost Cut My Hair," which managed to not sound ridiculous despite the fact that Crosby is very very bald. Follicular difficulties aside, the man can still sing and Neil Young's presence seemed to really energize his performance.
Stephen Stills also seemed to benefit a great deal from old Shakey's wild and frenetic demeanor, as the Hawaiian shirt-wearing former Buffalo Springfielder delivered a rousing rendition of "For What It's Worth," among other tracks. Stills' performance definitely displayed his place as one of the more underrated guitarists of all-time.
In a way, seeing CSNY reminded me a bit of seeing The Raconteurs a few months back. I have nothing against Brandon Benson, and I think David Crosby and Stephen Stills are first-ballot HOF'ers in my book, but when you're in the presence of a genius like Neil Young or a Jack White, that person should be front and center for the majority of the show. Clearly, CSN realize this, as the concert seemed to be a centerpiece for Neil Young's new artistic work and searing guitar pyrotechnics.
The Man, The Myth, The Ugly Jacket
The band played most of Living With War (see the setlist here), which as I mentioned held up well live. Young's latest work might be a tad undercooked, but there's no mistaking his heartfelt sincerity and raw intelligence. He's no died-in-the-wool-progressive, after all, the man was a big fan of Reagan, so his clear-cut evolution of thought carries a great deal of meaning in my book.
Not many artists get a critical free pass, but Neil is one of them. And while, I tend to find a lot of Living With War strident and clearly rushed, live there was no mistaking Neil's heartfelt emotion towards ending the war and for the soldiers in Iraq. Indeed, the war and the political turmoil in the Middle East hung heavily over the proceedings. The tour itself was calling the Freedom of Speech '06 Tour. Outside the venue, progressive organizations tried to mobilize the concert-goers into spending more of their money. And inside, the "Freedom of Speech" channel ran in the background during the Living With War material, listing death tolls from the war.
As one might expect, the high points of the show came from Young. From his fiery rendition of anti-war classic "Ohio," to his cover of Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner," to the concluding song, "Rockin' in the Free World," Neil Young displayed that even at 61 years old he still may be the best performer in rock music. Where Bob Dylan's voice has been ravaged over the years, Neil's frail slightly off-beat falsetto still rang clear and crisp up into the starless Hollywood sky and for a moment every withered hippie in the bowl believed that it was 1969 all over again. But in spite of the tragic similarities of the two eras, a war with no end, an incompetent president and a youth becoming more alienated and cynical by the day, there was at least one good similarity between the two. Neil Young and the rest of CSNY. Past their prime or not, their message and music still resonates and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better live act today.