It's difficult to listen to Crosby, Stills & Nash's 1969 debut with fresh ears. Song for song, it's one of the best debut albums in rock history, but four decades of classic rock radio, endless replays of the Woodstock movie, reunion tours, Time-Life Oldies But Goodies infomercials and campfire sing-alongs have beaten the material almost to death.
But after a grueling year on the road, Crosby, Stills & Nash dusted off the album at New York's Beacon Theatre on Monday for the grand finale of their 2012 tour. Hard as it is to believe, it was the very first time they'd performed the LP in its entirety. Almost all of the songs have been in their regular set list for years, but hearing them in their original sequence was a much-needed reminder of why this group made such a huge impact in their earliest days, before a certain shaggy Canadian joined their ranks.
After an opening set of familiar hits and a sprinkling of new songs, the trio took a brief intermission. Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and David Crosby then returned to the stage (minus their backing band) for the album portion of the evening. Accompanied only by Stills on guitar, they launched into album opener "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." Of the three singers, Stills' voice is far and away the most diminished – and this is a particularly hard song. But like a rusty machine slowly moving into high gear, he was largely up to the task by this point of the night. Nash and Crosby sound remarkable (especially considering both are in their seventies), and through the whole night they easily carried Stills when he was faltering.
The backing band creeped onstage for the euphoric "doo doo doo doo doo" finale and then kicked into "Marrakesh Express," before leaving Nash and Crosby alone onstage for a beautiful acoustic rendition of "Guinnevere." "You Don't Have to Cry" is the song that first united Crosby, Stills & Nash back in 1968, and 44 years later, it remains one of their most exquisite moments. "Pre-Road Downs" and "Lady of the Island" are the only two songs on the album that have been half-forgotten over the years, but Graham Nash poured himself into both and proved their worth.
"Wooden Ships" had the boomer crowd literally dancing in the aisles, and "Helplessly Hoping" brought the sold-out theater to a hushed silence. Though David Crosby has done just about everything possible to wear himself out over the years, by some miracle his voice remains powerful. "Long Time Gone" was his best moment of the night, and the finale of "49 Bye-Byes" gave Stills an opportunity to show that he remains one of rock's most underrated guitarists.
Their follow-up LP, 1970's Deja Vu, wasn't on the program for the evening, but they wound up playing 60 percent of it anyway. These two albums came out within 10 months of each other and have served as the backbone of their live repertoire ever since. Taken together, they crystalize the incredibly brief post-Woodstock period of American history when it seemed like hippie ideals might lead to a new American age.
In 1986, Neil Young released the song "Hippie Dream," in which he attacked the ideology of the time and his former bandmates. "The tie-dye sails are the screaming sheets," he wrote. "And the dusty trail leads to blood in the streets/And the wooden ships are a hippie dream/Capsized in excess . . . Another flower child goes to seed in an ether-filled room full of meat-hooks/It's so ugly. So ugly."
Maybe he was right. Weeks after Deja Vu hit shelves, the National Guard opened fire on unarmed students at Kent State. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young responded with the furious "Ohio," but broke apart not long afterward amid drug abuse and infighting. When they reformed for a highly lucrative stadium tour in 1974, they already seemed like visitors from another age cashing in on nostalgia, and to many it's seemed like that ever since.
But in 2000 it was Young himself who rescued Crosby, Stills & Nash from the casino and state fair circuit, bringing them back to enormous audiences all over the country for three triumphant tours. He hasn't played with them in six years, but those CSNY tours seemed to reinvigorate CSN, and in the years since, their show has been far better than it should be at this point in their lives. This is not the same group that haunted Las Vegas back in the Eighties.
They've toured heavily all year, but at the Beacon they still had the energy for a 29-song, three-hour show. In the first part of the evening, Stephen Stills reached back to his Buffalo Springfield days for "Bluebird." It was a sad reminder that Buffalo Springfield were supposed to be on the road this year, and Stills wrapped up the song with a furious guitar solo on the edge of the stage, almost as if to prove that his longtime friend made a big mistake in pulling the plug on the tour.
Toward the end of the night, Nash played keyboard for a truly moving "Cathedral," which is the closest CSN have ever gotten to prog rock. The evening wrapped up, inevitably, with "Teach Your Children." They've sung this song countless times, but all three of them gave it everything they had. Then they took big bows and walked offstage. For the first time in a long while, their tour schedule is totally blank, but odds are high they'll be back out next year – and the year after that. It's hard to imagine them doing this 10 years from now when they hit 80. Then again, who would have ever imagined it would have lasted this long?