CSN&Y Carry On at Inspired Reunion Concert
For the first time in six years, the elder statesmen of the acoustic-rock nation—Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—reunited last weekend on two chilly fall nights at the 27th annual Bridge School Benefit Concert, held at the Shoreline Amphitheater near San Jose, California.
Their October 26 performance before a diverse, multi-generational audience capped an eight-hour marathon concert that included the best cover of a Woody Guthrie song I have ever heard (sorry, Wilco), My Morning Jacket’s spooky, twangy rendition of “Pastures of Plenty.”
Proceeds from the popular event, hosted by singer-songwriter, CSN&Y member, and rock-guitar god Neil Young, and organized by his singer-songwriter wife Pegi, fund educational programs for physically challenged children. As a youth, the Youngs’ now 34-year-old son Ben, who is afflicted with cerebral palsy, attended the Bridge School, located in nearby Hillsborough.
The annual benefit concert is one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s cultural highlights, attracting a Who’s Who of Pop Music, everyone from Bono to Tony Bennett, but retaining a laid-back community atmosphere—in 1986, I watched Bruce Springsteen perform a riveting solo-acoustic set there, digging into Hank Williams’ “Mansion on the Hill” while Ben and his little friends, dressed in cowboy outfits, played blissfully at one side of the stage.
This year was no less memorable.
On October 26, Elvis Costello, My Morning Jacket, Arcade Fire, Jack Johnson, Queens of the Stone Age, Diana Krall, fun., Heart, and Jenny Lewis, all performed acoustic sets (Tom Waits was added to the lineup Sunday night, which closed with a tribute to Lou Reed).
The Saturday show kicked off with a solo-acoustic set by Young, flanked by students from the Bridge School, that started with a wistful cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and a performance by Native American dancers in full tribal dress.
But the Bridge School concerts are best-known for providing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for artists to perform with Young. Saturday’s show didn’t disappoint. Several of the younger musicians talked about how Young had influenced their lives and their careers, and some even got to share the mic with the man himself.
My Morning Jacket singer Jim James, his long hair blown out like a lion’s mane, recalled first hearing Young’s ethereal “Harvest Moon” as a teen, for instance, and asking his mother to purchase a copy of the album. She mistakenly bought the darker Harvest album instead. “You can imagine that had quite an impact on me,” he joked, moments before Young strolled onstage to duet on “Harvest Moon.”
Jack Johnson teamed up with Young on “Out On the Weekend.” And Arcade Fire, a last-minute addition to the bill (the Killers had cancelled), convinced Young to sing along on their uncharacteristically folksy composition “I Dreamed a Neil Young Song.”
At 15 minutes past midnight, with the amphitheater shrouded in a cool, gray mist, CSN&Y stepped onstage.
As Young played harmonica and an ancient pump organ, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash stood shoulder-to-shoulder and sang “Just a Song Before I Go,” CSN’s bittersweet 1977 ballad about going on tour and leaving behind friends and family.
That song selection, and the introduction of three new songs, led to speculation on my section of the lawn that CSN&Y may be planning to launch a reunion tour in 2014. After all, Nash’s has a new tell-all memoir and Stills is on tour as a member of the Rides, and next year marks the 45th anniversary of the landmark self-titled CSN album that more than any other launched the acoustic-rock movement.
In the spring, the band reportedly will release the long-delayed reissue of CSN&Y’s blockbuster 1974 concert album. And Crosby is set to release his first solo studio album in 20 years.
The new material Saturday night included a strong song by Stills and another by Young as well as a politically charged a cappella hymn in the style of “Find the Cost of Freedom,” but built around the phrase “Who are the men that really run this land?”
“Now . . . we’ve been accused of being political,” Crosby teased as he introduced the song. “What a bunch of nonsense!”
And if CSNY had gotten off to shaky start a few minutes earlier, the group’s angelic vocal harmonies locked in tightly on that hymn, and for the rest of the night.
“Peace isn’t an awful lot ask for,” Young quipped at the end of the song, donning a well-worn fedora in place of the marijuana-club hoodie he had tossed over his brow for that performance.
Of course, those harmonies come with drop-dead picking.
Stills, who struggled the most with his vocals, had no problem claiming his spot as one rock’s great guitarists, playing his big Martin D-45SS signature model. He traded dense blues licks with Young on “Déjà Vu” and deftly navigated the tricky runs on “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” his ode to former girlfriend and folksinger Judy Collins.
At 12:59, the rest of the acts joined CSN&Y to sing Nash’s classic “Teach Your Children.” Many in the audience, at least those that hadn’t bailed after Queens of the Stone Age, locked arms and sang along, a reminder that music with meaning requires an audience that thirsts for meaning in the lives.
On a chilly night in October, CSN&Y found 22,500 fans eager to carry on.