Thursday, October 30, 2014

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - CSNY 1974

As a bootleg collector and a fan of CSNY, I've been well acquainted with their fabled 1974 tour. I've heard complete audience recordings of three or four of the performances and parts of at least a dozen more. Underneath the hiss and audience chatter that pervade every bootleg recording of a stadium concert from that era, it was clear to me that the band was in better form than most rock historians would tell you. While every concert was far from flawless, they were still probably about on par with their shows from the original days of the band in 1969 and 1970. Even 4 Way Street, their official live album from 1971, supposedly showcasing their best concerts in 1970, suffers from missed notes, off-key harmonies, and flubbed lyrics. In the 1974 bootleg recordings, as with the 1971 album, the flaws aren't enough to truly dampen the magic. The ability of four clashing rock monsters to yield any amount of impressive results is something to marvel at, and the fact that more often than not they are right on the mark is amazing. Plus, in concerts from both 1970 and 1974, alternate arrangements and rare or otherwise unreleased songs are offered all over the place.

I was happy enough with my bootlegs, and knowing how slow and reluctant certain members of the band are to retrace their history, I never expected to hear an official release of recordings from the tour. Even when I heard that the project was in the works, I just assumed it would never actually come out. So, after numerous delays, when it finally did, I couldn't resist purchasing it. I had to hear it. And now that I've heard it, I want to share some insight from the perspective of someone that has heard the raw, untampered bootlegs. A word of warning, though: this review is long and detailed, which may be tedious for the casual reader, but hopefully will be of particular interest to the dedicated fan. Because of the length, I have used section headers and boldface to make the article easier to scan and search.

[CSNY 1974.]

Artist: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Album: CSNY 1974
Release Date: 8 July 2014
Label: Rhino Records
Producer: Graham Nash and Joel Bernstein with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Lists and Numbers

Below, I provide the complete tracklist annotated with first album appearance, authorship, and additional contributing members to the original version. I have not listed cowriters outside of the four core CSNY members. Tracks in bold had not been released at the time of the tour. Note that Young's On the Beach was released during the tour (July 16, 1974). For the DVD, I have listed only the songwriter, since all of the tracks already appeared in the CD tracklists with full details.

Disc 1:
01. Love the One You're With (Stephen Stills, 1970, by Stills, with Crosby and Nash)
02. Wooden Ships (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Crosby and Stills, with Nash)
03. Immigration Man (Graham Nash David Crosby, 1972, by Nash, with Crosby)
04. Helpless (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Young, with Crosby, Stills, and Nash)
05. Carry Me (Wind on the Water, 1975, by Crosby, with Nash)
06. Johnny's Garden (Manassas, 1972, by Stills)
07. Traces (unreleased, by Young)
08. Grave Concern (Wild Tales, 1973, by Nash)
09. On the Beach (On the Beach, 1974, by Young, with Nash)
10. Black Queen (Stephen Stills, 1970, by Stills)
11. Almost Cut My Hair (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Crosby, with Stills, Nash, and Young)

Disc 2:
01. Change Partners (Stephen Stills 2, 1971, by Stills, with Crosby)
02. The Lee Shore (4 Way Street, 1971, by Crosby, with Nash)
03. Only Love Can Break Your Heart (After the Gold Rush, 1970, by Young)
04. Our House (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Nash, with Crosby and Stills)
05. Fieldworker (Wind on the Water, 1975, by Nash, with Crosby)
06. Guinevere (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Crosby, with Nash)
07. Time After Time (Whistling Down the Wire, 1976, by Crosby, with Nash)
08. Prison Song (Wild Tales, 1973, by Nash, with Crosby)
09. Long May You Run (Long May You Run, 1976, by Young, with Stills; alternate version from Decade (1977) also features Crosby and Nash)
10. Goodbye Dick (unreleased, by Young)
11. Mellow My Mind (Tonight's the Night, 1975, by Young)
12. Old Man (Harvest, 1972, by Young)
13. Word Game (Stephen Stills 2, 1971, by Stills)
14. Myth of Sisyphus (Stills, 1975, by Stills)
15. Blackbird (Allies, 1983, written by Lennon/McCartney, performed by Crosby, Stills, and Nash live since first concerts in 1969)
16. Love/Art Blues (unreleased, by Young)
17. Hawaiian Sunrise (unreleased, by Young)
18. Teach Your Children (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Nash, with Crosby and Stills)
19. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Stills, with Crosby and Nash)

Disc 3:
01. Déjà Vu (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Crosby, with Stills and Nash)
02. My Angel (Stills, 1975, by Stills)
03. Pre-Road Downs (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Nash, with Crosby and Stills)
04. Don't Be Denied (Time Fades Away, 1973, by Young)
05. Revolution Blues (On the Beach, 1974, by Young, with Crosby)
06. Military Madness (Songs for Beginners, 1971, by Nash)
07. Long Time Gone (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Crosby, with Stills and Nash)
08. Pushed It Over the End (Heritage box set, 1981, by Young, with Crosby, Stills, and Nash)
09. Chicago (4 Way Street, 1971 / Songs for Beginners, 1971, by Nash)
10. Ohio (Single, by Young, with Crosby, Stills, and Nash)

DVD:
01. Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Young)
02. Almost Cut My Hair (Crosby)
03. Grave Concern (Nash)
04. Old Man (Young)
05. Johnny's Garden (Stills)
06. Our House (Nash)
07. Déjà Vu (Crosby)
08. Pushed It Over the End (Young)

There are many reasons for me to provide the tracklist with these annotations. It's worth noting how the songs get divided up. For example, I have tabulated of some of the above information below. The first number is the number of songs written by the member; the second number is how many songs they performed on; third is how many of the original released versions they performed on; and last is how many of the songs on the DVD were written by that member.

Crosby: 8.5 / 34 / 14* / 2
Stills: 8.5 / 35 / 11 / 1
Nash: 9 / 35 / 15* / 2
Young: 14 / 34 / 1 / 3

Notice any trends? I should make a couple notes. First, the asterisk represents the fact that "Long May You Run" originally featured Crosby and Nash, but the first official release did not, so if you want to count that, just add one. Second, the fractions represent "Wooden Ships", the only true collaboration that appears here. Third, many of these songs had been performed by the group live in 1969 and 1970, so even if the first released version didn't include other members' contributions, they may have already performed the songs live together before this tour. This discrepancy is not accounted for in my tabulation. Fourth, "Pushed It Over the End" was previously only released on an obscure Italian box set, and in fact was a recording from one of the Chicago dates of this very tour. It is a different recording than the one that appears here, and the sound quality is significantly inferior. Many ignore that release and considered the song essentially unreleased until now.

At any rate, the incongruity is obvious: Neil contributed the most songs (and especially the most then-unreleased songs), yet he appeared the least on other member's released recordings. However, the total live performance appearances (the second column) are almost even. As might be expected, the members were more collaborative when they shared a stage than they were when recording in the studio.

Songs and Songwriters

At first glance, the setlist/tracklist is undeniably impressive. It balances the original two CSN(Y) studio albums, various solo (and band) efforts, and a slew of newly written material. Neil offers a bunch of otherwise unavailable (or exceptionally rare) songs, which is an obvious treat, but also of special interest are the many rearrangements of previously-available material. One might complain that the box set doesn't include every single then-unreleased or rare song that was performed on the tour, but what is there is notable nonetheless. To discuss the specifics of what songs and performances are noteworthy (or forgettable), as well as what's missing, I will break the setlist down by bandmember.

I'll start with Graham Nash. As always, Nash tends to be the most consistent and stable. His voice is in good form, and while his songs never falter, they also rarely grow and change. Similarly, his musicianship is never showy but also never exceptional. Nash appears on many songs just on vocals, but he can be found on rhythm guitar or keyboards on plenty others.

Nash's highlights are "Fieldworker", a moving, newly-written song played just once on the tour in a simple arrangement; "Grave Concern", whose strong live performance greatly improves upon his solo studio recording; and "Teach Your Children", which risks being a cliché today, but is presented here with a louder, clearer mix of the counterpoint vocals in the second verse, which might be the best part of the song. "Pre-Road Downs" is given a thoroughly rocking take, but the vocals suffer a bit and lose clarity. "Military Madness" is a little weak, but "Immigration Man" is great, and "Chicago" features some great lead guitar from Nash's bandmates. Nash's songs have the least low points and the least high points, and the only real complaint is that his song "It's All Right" (unreleased until Earth & Sky in 1980) didn't make the cut.

Both of David Crosby's new songs for the tour appear on the album: "Carry Me", which turned out surprisingly good; and "Time After Time", which didn't. Crosby consistently played rhythm guitar throughout the album, often on an electric 12-string, and his vocals grace almost as many songs as Nash's. However, Crosby was the only principal member not to offer any keyboard parts. While his vocals are generally very strong, they do sound just a notch less consistent than Nash's.

Crosby's "Déjà Vu" is one of the highlights of the entire collection, rearranged in an extended, powerful, electric style. It may drag on just barely too long, but it's a cool enough take that I can't complain. Conversely, "Long Time Gone" loses some of its strength compared to the superb studio version. Somewhere in between is the lethargic take on "Almost Cut My Hair", which certainly loses some energy, but gains some depth and moodiness. In general, Crosby fared well, although his rampant hard drug use and general poor decision-making contribute to the feeling that these performances perhaps marked the end of his prime.

Stephen Stills is the least-favorably represented of the group. His guitarwork is in great form, and he even plays some decent keyboard parts, but his vocals suffer substantially compared to performances even a couple years prior. His voice might not have been as bad as it was when I saw CSN this year in Austin, but it is probably comparable to or worse than when I saw CSN two years ago in Kentucky. This has clearly been a long-standing problem. His poor showing mars "Love the One You're With" and brings down the otherwise excellent "Johnny's Garden". The vocals on "Black Queen" are abhorrent, but thankfully the electric guitar arrangement makes for a cool jam, even if it is a little ostentatious and drawn out.

Somehow "Blackbird" was left unscarred, and it remains a showcase for the band's vocal prowess and harmonic arrangement skills. The bridge is particularly transcendent and the performance is clearly superior to the version on the mediocre Allies (1983). However, two centerpiece performances for the band, "Wooden Ships" and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", suffer just a touch from Stills' vocal inability. Otherwise, those two songs sound superb and stand as strong as ever. For better or worse, the band hadn't started the trend of letting Nash sing most of Stills' parts in "Judy". That song has long served as a guidepost to the quality of a live performance by any group featuring Stills, and the ability of the members to harmonize correctly on it varied widely throughout the band's early years and just as much through the 1974 tour. (During the brief Stills-Young Band tour of 1976, the two principals consistently utterly failed to nail it. No wonder Young jumped off that sinking ship.) The performance on this album may have been edited or "tuned", but I'll address that notion in greater detail below.

The one pleasant surprise for Stills is "Word Game", which borrows a rambling, affected, somewhat annoying style borrowed from "Black Queen" but takes it in a better direction. It's on the line of showiness, but since the lyrics are actually meaningful (almost preachy, in fact), it works. A point of confusion for me is that many bootlegs and setlists denote that the song was played as a medley with Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me". Neither this album nor any bootleg from this tour that I've heard appear to include that additional material, although the Stephen Stills Live album (recorded in 1974 before the CSNY tour, released in 1975) includes a medley of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" with "You Can't Catch Me" as a separate track from "Word Game".

Less pleasant are Stills' new songs, "Myth of Sisyphus" and "My Angel", both later released on Stills (1975). Both are bad, but the latter is despondently terrible. I appreciate the attempt at offering new material, but when it's that worthless, it's hard to enjoy. Stills played three further songs on the tour that would later also appear on Stills: "My Favorite Changes", another bland song played just once on the opening night of the tour (and thus not recorded); "First Things First", which is just barely better than mediocre; and "As I Come of Age", which is actually pretty good, but which had been played live with CSNY since 1970. A big deal was made in the press about the lack of "Carry On", a traditional Stills showcase in the form of a hyperextended jam. I don't think the absence is much of a loss, but its inclusion may have helped bring up the average quality of Stills' material on the album.

The best showing was clearly given by Neil Young. I may be biased, but even the most precursory examination of this collection would bring most listeners to the conclusion that Young was the only member concerned with exceeding expectations. He brought the most songs, the biggest share of great songs, and the most proficient instrumental contributions.

His vocals are mostly in good form, and although they do stretch across a spectrum reaching from excellent to totally off (i.e. "Helpless"), his backing vocals are a welcome and distinctive addition to many of the other members' songs ("Love the One You're With", "Immigration Man", "Change Partners", "Prison Song", "Teach Your Children", et cetera). On bootlegs, his backing vocals were extremely hard to hear, if they were even in the mix at all. The presence of these additional vocals is one the best hidden treasures on this album.

Neil's guitarwork matches Stills', or perhaps even exceeds, in that Neil tends to be less flashy and more subtle and expressive. "On the Beach", "Don't Be Denied", "Revolution Blues", and "Chicago" all feature great improvisational work from the two guitarists, but sadly the number of truly shared or dueling guitar solos is fairly limited. The two clearly play off of each other and bring out interesting parts of each other, but even when left to their individual devices, Neil still never disappoints here. Young's keyboard work also graces many songs to good effect.

Some of Neil's most notable performances are the fuller, harmony-drenched renditions of songs like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", "Old Man", and "Mellow My Mind". The former two might be predictable, but the a capella chorus of "Only Love" is transcendent nonetheless, and this early live take on "Mellow My Mind" is better than the version on Tonight's the Night.

A couple of Neil's hitherto-unreleased songs are a bit lightweight, but they're still likable. "Goodbye Dick" is a brief, throwaway joke, and "Hawaiian Sunrise" is only saved by the great harmonies, but "Traces" (which appears on some bootlegged early acetate versions of Tonight's the Night) is good, and "Love/Art Blues", a song about finding balance in life, is even better. (It features the hilarious couplet, "my songs are so long / my words are all so sad".) "Pushed It Over the End" is the true lost treasure, an epic with both great guitar breaks and solid harmonies.

"Long May You Run" appears here performed as a duo with Stills, which is how the song would first see release two years later on the otherwise terrible Stills-Young Band album named after the song. Stills manages some great guitar runs, but he also misses the "Oh, Caroline, no" cue, and Neil even hits a wrong note on the harmonica. One longs for the full CSNY harmonies that grace the alternate mix heard on Decade.

Similarly, "On the Beach" and "Revolution Blues" do not feature any harmonies, but the brief dueling guitar solos from Stills and Young are a pleasure to hear. It's hard not to feel that an opportunity was missed, but the manic, paranoid intensity of both songs comes alive well here anyway. At least "Don't Be Denied" takes advantage of the full band: the harmonies in the third and fourth verses and the great guitar duels elevate the song to match or best the live version from Time Fades Away.

If all of Neil's unreleased material, early versions, and rearrangements weren't enough, it is worth noting that there was even more done on the tour that doesn't appear on the album. Most importantly, several songs intended for the scrapped Homegrown album first appeared publicly on this tour. "Homefires" has never seen release in any form (although it has been sporadically played live since then); "Love Is a Rose" debuted here; one of two performances ever of "Pardon My Heart" was on this tour; and "Star of Bethlehem" and "The Old Homestead" were both performed three times on this tour and never again. "Human Highway" was performed in an excellent sparse arrangement with great harmonies, far superior to the overdone version that would later turn up on Comes a Time. "Roll Another Number" was a drunken tune from Tonight's the Night that was already recorded and done live but still hadn't seen release. Also notable were "Walk On" and "For the Turnstiles", both from the contemporaneously released On the Beach. The latter was treated well by the full CSNY arrangement, but I can't speak to the latter, as it was only performed once (and not played again until 1987!), and that show was neither officially recorded nor bootlegged.

[An acoustic number in Houston.]

History vs. Post-Production

Moving on from the specific songs and songwriters, there are a few bigger-picture issues to consider. My first question is how well this album represents what actually happened on the tour. I've covered the song choices in great detail, and I think it's fair to say the producers did a good job constructing a fairly accurate representation of the setlists. An equally important issue is how much the recordings were altered to create a more perfect version of the past. All four members and archivist/producer Joel Bernstein have frequently derided the quality of the performances in the past, so it is not without irony that this album sounds as good as it does. There are minor flaws, such as static (during "Love the One You're With" and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"), occasional bum notes, missed cues, and off-key vocals, but they aren't common enough to detract from the performance. In fact, they may even contribute to an air of authenticity. However, Nash mentions "tuning" the songs in interviews, and he also discusses editing together multiple takes, sometimes even flying in individual lines from other shows.

While this sort of post-production is certainly no crime, and I don't believe any overdubbing was involved, one does have to wonder how far they went. Nash has also stated that "Guinevere" is actually from a Crosby & Nash concert later that same year (judging by the liner notes, December 14 at a United Farmworkers Union and Project Jonah benefit in San Francisco), because Crosby demanded that it be included despite that none of the CSNY shows recorded featured it. Since neither Stills nor Young ever performed on the song, this may not be a big deal, but it does damage the reputation a little bit. If you listen for it, you can actually hear the audience and ambient sound conspicuously change at the end of the song during the transition to the next. And if they were willing to take recordings that weren't even done on the tour in question, what else might they have done that they aren't willing to publicly admit? Do we have any reason to trust their word?

Supposedly the final show of the tour at Wembley Stadium in London was a catastrophe, and the next day, the band couldn't even sit through a complete playback of the recorded performance. I've heard a bootleg, and while the awful sound quality doesn't help, the performance itself is indeed middling at best. However, Wembley is credited as one of the recording locations and the DVD includes four songs shot there. So did they manage to salvage a couple golden tracks from the mess, or was the whole thing better than everyone remembered?

Based on the bootlegs, most nights of the tour were a mixed bag, with some songs turning out great, some falling apart, and most ending up somewhere in the middle. I suspect if one were to make a compilation of the best performances from the bootlegs, you could probably find good enough versions of all the songs to make a convincing case that the tour was an unqualified success. Maybe that's what actually happened: everyone remembers all the lows, but when you put together all the highs, you get a pretty good package. It's hard to know for sure just how much additional tinkering was done in the studio, but at least the final results are believable.

It is a real joy to hear these recordings in soundboard quality, even if they do represent an idealized concert. The bootlegs all show their age. They were mostly recorded in the bleachers, far away from the stage and speakers, and the huge outdoor spaces translated sloppily on to the primitive bootlegging equipment of the day. The acoustic songs in particular suffered; they were usually mostly inaudible to start with, and the audience noise only compounded the problem. Even when the band was in top form, the low recording quality made it hard to enjoy the show or accurately evaluate the performance.

We know from 4 Way Street that even when CSNY was at their peak, they still made mistakes. Their first live album is surprisingly earnest in revealing the flaws of the performers. This time around, they couldn't help themselves from revisionism, but it does make for a more consistently enjoyable listening experience. The lack of most of the stage banter is also somewhat welcome, as the quartet had a well-established history of rambling and ranting, or just mumbling and grumbling. One of the only sections that did make the cut (at the end of "Traces", leading into "Grave Concern") was the hilarious Nixon spoof in which the band tries to convince each other that "I just don't recall", "I wasn't there", and so on. That was well worth keeping, especially considering the band's fascination with the Nixon proceedings at the time.

Locations

Another big question that I've alluded to is the matter of where the individual songs were recorded. Apparently, nine concerts at the end of the tour were recorded (in addition to the aforementioned benefit appearance by Crosby and Nash from which "Guinevere" was taken): two in Uniondale, New York; three in Landover, Maryland; three in Chicago; and the finale in London. However, to name a specific location to a specific song, there aren't many clues available. All I can find are a couple shouts from Graham Nash to the audience, mentioning Wembley in "Almost Cut My Hair" and Maryland in "Military Madness"; the stage announcements after "Ohio", which address Chicago; and the fact that a few songs were only performed a single time during the recorded part of the tour ("Goodbye Dick" and "Mellow My Mind" on August 14 in Uniondale and "Fieldworker" on August 20 in Landover). The rest is anyone's guess, and if the recordings really are composite edits, even comparing with the bootleg versions won't help. In the worst case, if the edits were extreme enough, it might not even be possible to name a single night as the source of a performance.

While we don't know the specific locations of the audio tracks, nor just how much editing really was done, we do know the locations and dates of the video: the first four are from Landover on August 20 and the last four are from London on September 14. One can speculate about how much audio editing was performed on the DVD tracks, and even wonder if the audio (or parts of it) originate from other shows. However, other than a brief moment in "Grave Concern", I failed to observe any conspicuous incongruities between sight and sound, so I believe that any such post-production was minimal. But the real question with the DVD is why there are only eight songs. Is it too much to ask for more? Were those really the only eight songs worth providing video for? The liner notes make a big deal of the fact the these kinds of video recordings were very new and not of very high quality, but certainly most fans interested in this album would understand and just want to see what's there.

The Mix

One last concern is the quality of the mix. This is an easy matter to address: the album sounds great. The instrument separation is about as good as one could get with four guitars, bass, and two percussionists. Crosby and Nash's guitars are sometimes hard to distinguish and low in the mix, but it is well recognized by everyone involved that most of the time they were just strumming along. Neil and Stephen's guitars are usually prominent, and can be distinguished in that Neil is usually in the right channel and Stephen in the left. The various keyboards are usually distinctive; the drums are present but not too loud; the bass is maybe a bit soft, but thankfully not buried, either. The vocals are always clear and usually everyone credited with singing can be heard distinctively.

The only odd thing about mix is that just a few songs have little oddities that can be heard most easily when listening on headphones. "Pre-Road Downs" has several points where there is a weird imbalance in the right channel, which might be bad edits or just an odd drum pattern. "Black Queen" has some similar effects halfway through, as well as some volume swelling in the first half, and "Don't Be Denied" also suffers from some of the same imbalance issues.

Conclusion

It's clear that a project like this had a huge scope and took a massive amount of effort. The results might actually manage to live up to the recent hype, and they absolutely paint a better picture than what history would have led you to believe. The bootlegs have always told a part of the hidden truth, i.e. that the performances were better than the band remembered, but the official release seals the deal. One will always wonder how much doctoring was done, but since little about it feels artificial or overdone, it's an easy album to enjoy. The songs are good, the performances are strong, and it sounds superb.

Score: A-

References and Further Reading:

P.S. Note that the discogs.com page erroneously lists Stills as performing vocals on "On the Beach". There may be other inaccuracies that I haven't noticed.

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