CSNY Recordings/Rhino

Over the years, the legend of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young’s 1974 tour managed to surpass the memories of the music itself. It seemed what was best remembered were the wretched excesses of the 31 concerts that CSNY played in 24 cities between July 9 and September 14 of that year.

It was true: there were amazing amounts of money spent on everything from extravagances (including hotel-room pillowcases silk-screened with the band’s logo, CSNY ice sculptures backstage and Learjets) to the expected expenses associated with moving a small army of people and six tractor trailer trucks full of equipment around the country.

There were also prodigious amounts of dope – and egos, as well. And there was the summer’s other soundtrack: the news was overflowing with the evil weirdness of the Watergate scandal, which would result in Richard Nixon leaving the White House just ahead of rumblings of impeachment. It was a strange time in America and CSNY was right in the middle of it.

It was David Crosby who dubbed the experience “The Doom Tour” after the circus had ended. There was enough unsettledness amongst the band that any thoughts of a follow-up studio album were scrapped – and it would be a number of years before the entire quartet would work together again.

Four decades later, the mention of those 9-1/2 weeks in 1974 still conjures up wild tales and twisted memories … much of it having little to do with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s music.

Until now, that is.

Co-produced by Graham Nash and über-archivist Joel Bernstein, the 3-CD/single-DVD CSNY 1974 is more than a 40-year-old time capsule; it’s a powerful reminder – all the weird shit aside – of the amazing music this quartet was capable of creating.

Granted, this is a collection culled from ten concerts, rather than a single show: Nash and Bernstein worked hard to come up with performances that met with the approval of all hands. The track list, however, flows like a typical night from the ’74 tour – a string of full-band tunes leads things off, followed by an acoustic set (featuring various combinations as well as a few solo numbers) with the full ensemble plugged back in to take things home.

CSNY was joined for the summer by bassist Tim Drummond (one of Neil Young’s Stray Gators who had been on hand for the recording of Harvest and 1973’s Time Fades Away tour) and the rhythm team of Russ Kunkle (drums) and Joe Lala (percussion), both of whom had worked with Stills. All three prove themselves to be tasteful players who know how to support their bosses while challenging them at the same time.

Right off the bat, the backline trio propels Stills’ “Love The One You’re With” out of the chute with a walloping jam that eventually makes its way into the song’s Latin-flavored main riff. It’s obvious that this isn’t any spit-and-polished Vegas revue: Stills’ voice sounds as raw as his guitar leads, but you hear the joy in the quartet’s voices as they punch out the tune’s trademark do-do-dos at the end of each chorus. The original (from Stills’ debut solo album) had a miles-deep choir in the background; here we hear the combined throats of CSNY … and that’s all that’s needed. Liftoff is achieved.

As mentioned, the 40 tracks spread over the three CDs are an interesting mix. There are the expected “group hits” – “Wooden Ships”, “Teach Your Children”, “Our House”, “Pre-Road Downs” – which nonetheless still offer the unexpected. For instance, while “Almost Cut My Hair” captures some classic Stills vs. Young six-string dueling (whip-crack blues vs. angular fire), “Déjà Vu” takes a totally different path. Crosby leads the way out of an opening space jam with a spiraling pattern on his electric 12-string; the vocal weaves by the quartet are naturally psychedelic – perfect for the song; and then comes the jam – a period of reflection on the questions offered up in the opening verses. Young may begin the song with his faithful Gretsch White Falcon strapped on his shoulders, but then he retreats to the massive Steinway piano. What follows is a much different face-off between he and Stills, who guides his Gibson SG into a gentler space to intertwine with the lush keyboard work that Young offers up. The result is a magnificent dance laced with a feeling of intimacy – even though it was being performed in front of a packed stadium.

Then there are the songs that debuted that summer – including Nash’s “Fieldworker”, Crosby’s “Time After Time”, Young’s “Hawaiian Sunrise” and Stills’ “Myth Of Sysiphus”. The presentations range from solo to group; all are seasoned with the excitement of artists unable to contain what’s inside of them (and why would they?). Young gets the award for the album’s most gonzo moment with his brand-new banjo ditty “Goodbye Dick”, penned after watching Nixon wave goodbye on August 9th.

Perhaps the songs that provide the most insight into the sum of CSNY’s parts are the ones birthed on solo projects. Here Nash’s “Immigration Man” is ominous and frightening (as it was meant to be); Stills’ “Black Queen” is transformed from an acoustic tequila-drenched blues to a primal stomp, dripping with tar; and Young’s “Don’t Be Denied” is everything it was ever meant to be: plaintive and open with an edge that keeps it from becoming just another anthem. There is fire in these performances that you will not find in any other archival recordings, whether it was Crosby and Nash with the Mighty Jitters, Young’s Stray Gators or Stills’ Manassas ensemble – a one-of-kind excitement that only this quartet (along with Kunkle, Drummond and Lala) could generate.

Or, simply listen to the group’s take on their classic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”. If you are among the many who were left hungry by the 33-second snippet that opened CSNY’s 1971 live collection 4 Way Street, here you’ll find satisfaction. Both Stills and Young are on acoustic Martins for this version – Young’s presence allowing Stills greater room to run the fretboard, all highwire risky grace and open-tuned fire. It’s the vocals that truly tell the tale of the moment, however: it’s obvious the quartet is having fun and delighting themselves as they repeatedly pull where-did-that-come-from harmonies out of their pockets. During the third movement of the suite, there’s a snap to the question, “How can you catch the sparrow?” – the final syllable held for a moment longer, then fired into the air with nothing short of “God – damn “ sheer joy.

The deal doesn’t require sealing, but the companion DVD provides such. While the seven songs are a mix of in-house video and pro-shot footage, the emotion present overrides any quality issues. When Crosby and Stills burrow into the jam of “Déjà Vu” – lover-like, eye-to-eye and foreheads almost touching – there are no special effects or enhancements needed.

In that moment, they were kings.


Brian Robbins keeps his Taylor DN3 tuned to DADDAD over at www.brian-robbins.com