Pieces, Manassas

Live at Shepherd’s Bush, Stephen Stills

Rhino Records

Ah, yes: Stephen Stills – a man who stuck his head in the lion’s mouth without getting it bit off for so long that eventually even the lion died of old age, leaving Stills the victor. Periods of typical bad rock ‘n’ roll behavior; the well-publicized ego implosions of CS&N/CSN&Y; and even flirts with mortality (chronic hearing problems; prostate surgery in January of 2008) have taken their toll on Stills, but he remains a force to be reckoned with when it comes to his music. The bottom line is, here’s a man who has provided a nice chunk of the soundtrack to the last 40-odd years, either in group settings (Buffalo Springfield; the mix-and-match various CSNY combos; Manassas) or on his own. He’s done it both acoustically with the kind of technique that fills dorm halls and grassy parks with young men bent intently over six-string dreadnaughts and electrically with the kind of style that you might expect from a picker who used to like just hanging out and jamming with his buddy named Jimi.

With his prostate cancer reportedly behind him, Stills seems to be taking better care of himself physically these days – and age appears to be settling on him well when it comes to outlook and attitude. One might expect a performer whose early career inspired journalistic overuse of “super” to be so ego-inflated as to be boorish at this point. The good news is, Stills (who will be 65 this coming January) is in a good place and enjoying what he does. And it shows.

Thanks to the good folks at Rhino Records (the current keepers of the keys to the Grateful Dead vault – and doing a good job of it – so you just know they have to be decent souls), we have two new releases from the world of Stephen Stills. Jumping back to the early ’70s, we have Pieces, a collection of unreleased music from Stills’ great coulda-woulda-shoulda project, Manassas. The second album is of more recent vintage: Live at Shepherd’s Bush captures Stiils in concert in October ’08, splitting the setlist between solo acoustic and full-band electric numbers.

On Pieces, there are moments that are just plain good pieces of music and seem fully-formed. For example, the album-opening “Witching Hour” is worthy of a spot on either of the two original Manassas releases with its trademark-of-the-period swirling keyboard and nicely layered vocals. Al Perkins’ pedal steel is all over this track with nice accents and fills, swapping leads with Stills’ lightly-wahhed electric. (Another tune that benefits greatly from Perkins’ presence is the soaring “Like A Fox” – his steel work shimmers and brings the cut to life.)

There are a couple songs that you’ll no doubt recognize from other places; obviously, they got their legs in the studio with Manassas. “Sugar Babe,” a plea for communication between lovers (with its great eternal question, “How do turtles talk to one another?”) is good, but got better with age. By the time it saw daylight on Stills’ second solo album, “Sugar Babe” had a looser, more gospel feel that drove the song’s emotions home. Knowing that this is really an album of outtakes and ideas waiting to be fleshed out, there’s no need to be harsh. I’ll just say for the record that the version of “Word Game” that ended up on Stephen Stills 2 (just the man and his swampy acoustic) is far preferable to the version we find on Pieces; the bennie-chomping “Mystery Train” arrangement totally undermines the wallop of Stills’ lyrics. But, again, that’s why we experiment …

Pieces includes a number of tasty … well, pieces: seven of the album’s 15 tracks clock in under two minutes, seeds of songs that never had the chance to fully bloom. “My Love Is A Gentle Thing” is just sweet hippie music: all hand percussion and buried acoustic guitars with fine harmonies slathered over top. “Tan Sola Y Triste” is one of those cool Latin grooves that runs in Stills’ veins, a keyboard-driven track that easily could’ve blossomed into something great.

Remember: Manassas was a critter of multi-personalities, able to go from full-fledged crunched-out rock and roll band to Latin-flavored jazzbo jammers to sounding like a bunch of good ol’ boys sitting with the hound dogs on the front porch without batting an eye. The country/bluegrass-flavored side of the band was where former Byrd/Burrito Brother Chris Hillman’s influence showed through the brightest. Though Hillman was handed an electric bass to figure out when he joined the Byrds back in 1964, his first love was the mandolin, which he gets to burn up on “Panhandle Rag” and “Uncle Pen.”

Pieces closes out with the kind of thing Stills was famous for: “I Am My Brother” finds him holed up with what sounds like just his acoustic guitar, a microphone, and an engineer – his voice and fingerpicking doing a hypnotic weave. It’s a moment that feels intimate and personal.

Is this an album worth having? Sure. If you have the first two Manassas albums, it sounds like this may be all that’s left in the vaults, folks, and there’s some interesting stuff here. However, if you don’t have the originals, snag them right now – at least the band’s self-titled debut. Throw that on, sit back, and wonder why they didn’t go on to rule the world.

While Pieces gets a bit of a pardon for being what it is (outtakes/demos/works in progress), there’s really no place for Stephen Stills to hide on Live At Shepherd’s Bush. The man puts himself on the line, hitting the stage with just an acoustic guitar for the first half – and keeping the second set full-band lineup contained to just bass, drums, and keyboards behind him. Here’s the cool thing, though: Stills doesn’t need anywhere to hide. His heart’s in it; his soul’s in it; and more than just getting points for being a vet trying his hardest, Stills puts out and puts on a hell of a show.

Before we talk about the album’s hair-stands-up-on-your-arms moment, let’s do a little math first. I believe that Stephen Stills wrote “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” in 1968, but this is quick figuring, so let’s round off and say he’s been playing it for 40 years, okay? And over those 40 years, taking into consideration live performances, practices, whatever, how many times do you suppose he’s played it? What’s a fair number? An average of 100 times a year? If so, that’d be 4000 times he’s played the frigging song, okay? (And had drunks screaming at him to play it every night that he didn’t, so that’s worth something in itself …) At this point, you might expect any run-through of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” to be such a hideous cliché that the song’s soul would be long gone, dead and buried.

You might … but check out Stills’ performance on Shepherd’s Bush. This isn’t some “play the obligatory hit and keep ‘em quiet” deal: Stills tears into the song like he’s still trying to win the girl’s heart back. Maybe some of yesterday’s ego has translated to simple pride in his work as the man has gotten older – whatever – you can easily tell the song still means something to him, it’s his to explore and stretch and push … and he does. With his hearing totally blown out (he wears hearing aids in both ears) and a voice that can’t help but show signs of having been pushed for going on 50 years, Stills does sound older – but he doesn’t sound old.

Stills roams the fretboard for a moment or two before launching into the song’s opening riff; once he charges down the neck with the chiming intro, the crowd explodes – then quickly quiets down so as not to miss anything. The opening movement is played with the same driving rhythm that propelled the original and he still pushes the vocal on the “Tearing yourself …” portion; by the time he hits the last verse, Stills employs a bit of palm-muting to add a rhythm to the song that wasn’t there before, then glides it into the second section. Here he balances big rumbling, open bass strings against gentle harmonics, drawing off and nailing the high-end “Can I tell it like it is …” vocal, much to the delight of the crowd. (Maybe to Stills’ delight, as well: from that point on, he seems to push his voice all the harder.)

From there, we head to the “Chesnut brown canary …” movement of the suite, but not before Stills takes us on a journey deep into the heart of EEEEBE tuning. He begins with little bits of improvised fretted midrange notes against droning open strings, letting the thing develop from a butterfly dance to a harder, full-string strum as the tension builds. He storms up the neck a few times, letting the notes cascade back down into a pool of booming open E, then tears into a wild syncopated series of hammer-ons that once again find their resolution on the bottom-end strings. Stills then begins the vocal, subtly digging in on the rhythm and slowly building its intensity. (What we can’t see on the CD – but, fortunately, there’s a DVD of the show included – is his band quietly filing in on stage and taking their stations.) Reaching the “Change my life/Make it right/Be my lady” line, Stills slides into the passage that leads into the final movement, playing the riff true to the original as drummer Joe Vitale falls in behind him with a pounding driving beat and – blastoff! The full band explodes, Stills tearing into those classic Spanish lyrics (you know: the ones that everybody sings, but doesn’t really know) over top of the harmonied “doo-doo”s. The suite slams to a halt – there’s a microsecond of silence as the whole building takes a breath – and the applause that follows is as much celebration as it is appreciation.

Sure – the entrance of the band adds a layer of excitement to the performance; but the cool thing is, you can feel _Stills_’ excitement as much as anything … he’s having a blast … even if it is the 4000th time he’s played “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”.

Live at Shepherd’s Bush finds Stills appreciative (in response to the applause after the opener “Tree Top Flyer”: “You must know that we’re filmin’ … can’t be stiffin’ the old boy when he’s filmin’.”) and playful about his age (while introducing “4 + 20”: “I’ve left the words the same, you know, because ‘3 + 60’ just doesn’t … sound right”) while performing with a fire that one might not expect at this point in his career. It really is a delight to find him sounding happy to be doing what he’s doing.

Few players make the transition from acoustic to electric like Stills; his guitar playing is fierce throughout Shepherd’s Bush. During the second half of the album, the band (Todd Caldwell on keys, Kenny Passarelli on bass, and drummer Vitale), holds down the fort, allowing Stills to wring the living piss out of his Strat on numbers such as Manassas’ “Isn’t It About Time”, Buffalo Springfield’s “Rock & Roll Woman”, and the classic “Love The One You’re With”. Similar to old buddy Neil Young, Stills’ plugged-in style oftentimes relies on (and demonstrates his command of) gobs of absolute raw power … and just as you think the beast has gotten away from him, he reigns it in and moves on.

All in all, Live at Shepherd’s Bush is the best live album of Stephen Stills’ solo career – few artists pull that off this many decades down the road. There’s some inspiration to be found here, as this is more than an oldies act – the son of a gun came to play.