Between two miserable bootleg albums Wooden Nickel and Live at the Forum, atrocious not so much due to the production imperfections common to bootleg recording but largely because of the wretched workmanship of the group themselves and six cuts on the two Woodstock albums which collectively constituted a monumental disaster in the history of live recording, it seemed to me that, however one might view their two studio albums. Crosby, Stills. Nash and Young had about as much business recording live concerts as did the Monkees.
But 4 Way Street is a surprisingly good album. To begin with, CSN&Y all sing and play in the same key on almost every single cut. One of the principal failures of their previous live work was that they attempted to duplicate those tight, three-part harmonies which required numerous takes and overdubs in the studio, but this double album is for the most part a showcase of solo material by each of the four. The exceptions
“Long Time Gone.” “Pre-Road Downs,” and “Carry On” are still pretty ragged live, but in the latter case this is mitigated somewhat by the fact that “Carry On” serves as the vehicle for some long, exciting Stills-Young electric exchanges.
Young and Stills also really get it on together on the other extended number (13-plus minutes), Neil’s “Southern Man,” trading off some steaming riffs which compare favorably with the Danny Whitten-Young guitar work on the original (After The Gold Rush) version. Neil Young’s “Cowgirl In The Sand” (done by himself with acoustic guitar) is a strangely different song than the recording with Crazy Horse, but it is utterly exquisite all the same. Young also does lovely acoustic solos of “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” (from Gold Rush) and an old Buffalo Springfield tune, “On The Way Home.” Even “Ohio” is no worse (though no better) than the single – but then the message is the medium anyway, I guess.
About a year ago (in a review of Deja Vu) someone remarked that CSN&Y’s principal weaknesses were Crosby’s singing and Nash’s songwriting. I tend to disagree, and I think this album goes a long way in refuting both points. As for the first argument, well, his solo album aside, Crosby does two excellent songs here. (One of them, “Triad,” is particularly notable, for the song was one of the major bones of contention leading to Crosby’s departure from the Byrds. The haunting “The Lee Shore” is a treasure, and while “Long Time Gone” is pretty well botched here, it is not so much the fault of Crosby’s vocal inadequacy as the fact that the song – like, among others, “Suite – Judy Blue Eyes” – is one of those in CSN&Y’s repertoire which is difficult enough to be beyond the group’s ability to competently perform it live.
And while Nash’s songs are, to be sure, pretty lightweight, they rarely pretend to be anything else. The worst thing you can say about them is that they’re harmless, and most of them are actually damned nice. They have suffered from some incredibly saccharine, overly-slick renditions on the first two albums – sometimes so disgustingly sweet they make you want, as Dorothy Parker once put it, “to fwow up.” Nash’s “Right Between The Eyes,” though, is one of the high spots of 4 Way Street, and “Teach Your Children” is one of the few cuts on the record where the whole group sings together without blowing it. (While there’s no Jerry Garcia steel guitar on this version of “Children,” somebody picks a fine mandolin.)
In point of fact, if criticism of somebody’s writing is to be levied in connection with CSN&Y, one might well point to a couple of the Stills numbers. Stephen jumps from “49 Bye-Byes” into a latter-day version of his Springfield-era “For What It’s Worth” called “America’s Children.” It is a patronizing, gratuitous piece of drivel (the liner notes describe it as a “poem”) which is presumably supposed to heighten the political consciousness of all us “children.” Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” has been roundly criticized as being offensive to women. It is not merely offensive to women; it is insulting to human beings. About the only good thing that can be said about the song is that, in the absence of that background chorus and hokey arrangement, it sounds better here than on his solo album.
CSN&Y’s latest backup duo, Johnny Barbara on drums and Calvin Samuels on bass, perform creditably if unspectacularly. The album does clearly point up their limitations as a group, but Crosby, Stills. Nash, and Young are all performers of unquestionable talent, and mostly because they stay out of each others’ way 4 Way Street must surely be their best album to date.