During the intermission at Wednesday’s Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young performance, Susan Nash turned Portland’s Rose Quarter into a birthday tribute to her husband. She passed out hats to eager fans and supervised the arrangement of fifty-eight candles along the proscenium. This number is astounding. Not only does Graham Nash hardly act his age, he has spent more than half of that time associated with a band that is only now achieving its full potential.
Five dates into their reunion tour, these rocking seniors have found a groove more energetic and enlightening than what they displayed more than half a lifetime ago. They scrambled expectations: The traditional openers and closers, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Find the Cost of Freedom,” respectively about lost love and early death, were scrapped in favor of the optimistic and redemptive “Carry On” and “Long May You Run.” Instead of long acoustic and electric sets, they started out hard, downshifted into a softer set after an intermission, and then kicked into a deconstructive seven-song sequence that began with “Woodstock” and crashed into “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
There, Neil Young took control. While he floated on the balls of his feet in the acoustic set, when he plugged in, he flew upward, tossed his guitar in the air and caught it on the way down. This may be a familiar occurrence to his fans, but having Stephen Stills challenging his every note, bouncing and laughing together as their guitars screamed in cacophonous duel, is a rare and exhilarating sight.
Backed only by legendary Stax Records bassist Duck Dunn and drummer Jim Keltner — who packed his propulsive punch while inexplicably positioned between an antique lamp and a wooden Indian — CSN&Y acted as generous equals. Birthday boy Nash, who led stellar renditions of his own “Teach Your Children,” “Marrakesh Express” and “Our House,” has always ceded the spotlight to his more aggressive bandmates. On this tour, however, all four have adopted that same attitude. They acknowledged each other throughout, adding the patented four-part harmony to such unlikely targets as “For What It’s Worth” and a pipe organ-driven “After the Goldrush.”
On this night, however, Young was slightly more than an equal and Stills slightly less. Young’s guitar insinuated itself into every aural opening, while Stills — aside from the aforementioned guitar duels — seemed more intent on managing the sound than sharing the spotlight.
While there were plenty of popular crowd pleasers, nine songs — about one third of the concert — came from the recent Looking Forward CD. While new, the songs aren’t completely unfamiliar. Nash’s “Heartland” borrows a line from the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping” in making a case for slowing down, while the cheers of recognition for Young’s “Slowpoke” came from fans who thought they were getting “Heart of Gold.” But, by the first harmonica break, the song was earning its own applause.
Some improved over the recorded versions. Stills’ “Seen Enough,” an annoying polemic on record, gained new depth live as the backing vocals were brought front and center. Similarly, Young’s jazz-tinged guitar lifted “Dream for Him” into another realm. The song, David Crosby’s paean to his young son, offered an unaffected look at senior parenting. At the song’s end Crosby kicked his legs out from his stool and smiled shyly, offering up a pretty good idea of how he looked at age five.
Crosby’s over-documented drug problems have made him a curiosity, but judging by this performance it’s well past time to remove him from the sympathy list. He held his own with his compatriots — not an easy feat considering Nash’s vocal ebullience and the Stills/Young guitar interplay. He would often slam rather than play his guitar, but he also turned in a slowed down, subtle rendition of the raga-tinged “Guinnevere” and added appropriate touches of fury to “Long Time Gone” and “Almost Cut My Hair.”
The “Long May You Run” encore closed the show with a big smile. In another life, Stills and Young incurred some well-deserved Crosby/Nash wrath when their vocals were cut from the recorded version. Here, they set that record straight. And even if they cannot rewrite their fractious history, CSN&Y are now reaching all of the grace notes.