Review: The grizzled '60s holdovers deliver an inspired diatribe that surely left some fans divided.
By BEN WENER
The Orange County Register
As a rule, newspaper scribes – even opinionated writers like me – are supposed to leave their politics at home, or at the very least leave them out of their stories.
Critics at Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly can get away with poking fun at the president or flat-out condemning his policies without much repercussion – and truth be told, I have my ways of sneaking in a jab when warranted. It helps when, say, a long-revered icon lets loose his own pent-up frustration, as Neil Young did in a white-hot rage earlier this year with his "Living With War" album.
Even then, however, I'm supposed to let him do the (depending on how you see it) talking, complaining, hectoring or enlightening.
I mention all of this because I'm about to break this keep-it-in-check rule as respectfully as I can.
I have good reason: I simply find it impossible to review Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's brave and outspoken (if also overlong and occasionally redundant) performance Sunday night at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater without allowing politics into it.
If I offered nothing more than a play-by-play of this four-hour, 34-song evening, recounting only song lyrics and the group's many minimalist performance-art statements – like a gigantic microphone, a yellow ribbon around its stand, erected with the dramatic flair of Young's "Greendale" production as though it were a literal vox populi – well, I still wouldn't be able to avoid sharing their fed-up point of view.
So why try to be so clinical, so "objective"? Yet, knowing this concert would be as protest-heavy as any in decades, I arrived consumed by thoughts of how typical folk here would take to it.
What a joke of a premise. Never mind that O.C. people (those who aren't apathetic, that is) aren't so easy to peg, especially during such contentious times. What I wonder is how anyone could even speculate about the crowd's undoubtedly wildly varied reaction.
"We've got the perfect show for Orange County," Stills slyly noted at the outset, and if you think this place is overrun with hard-lining Republicans, you'd be surprised at how loud this politically mixed crowd cheered for decidedly anti-Republican rhetoric. And if even a thousand people walked out grumbling after sitting through one too many caustic commentaries, no one could have noticed.
The span of emotions this performance elicited is just too wide to assess.
After a run of angry new Young anthems bookended by Nash's deceptively rollicking "Military Madness" and the lamenting blues of Stills' "It's a Wounded World," the guy to my left hoisted his beer in sympathy and gratitude while another five rows behind me yelled out, "Lighten up, guys!" During "Let's Impeach the President" (for "lying," "spying," "abusing the power we gave him," "hijacking our religion," it's a long list of offenses), half of the orchestra section rose, ready to throw power-to-the-people fists in the air; the other half sat motionless, reading the lyrics on a screen behind the band.
Those are the sort of conflicted responses I'm talking about – ones I bet CSN&Y hoped to receive.
Ultimately I can only tell you how the onslaught of fresh fighting songs and reinvigorated, recontextualized warhorses made me feel. In short: inspired, saddened and maddened, convinced that little will change unless people rise up and demand change. I was already so resolved, but clearly this no-more-war display is as much designed to sway fence-sitters as it is intended to comfort doves or people who have lost loved ones in battle.
There is an overriding message: We're farther away from Eden than ever before. Note the placement of "After the Garden" early in the program – "What will the people do after the garden is gone?" it asks while a backdrop shows a broken and rusted peace-symbol pendant, like you might find in the rubble after a bomb blast. Now note the finale, "Woodstock," imploring "we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."
Tucked in between were other hot-button issues (Nash's "Immigration Man," a song "I learned from Arnold Schwarzenegger," Young's lie-weary "Restless Consumer") as well as welcome respites that sent minds back home (the veterans salute of "Families," a sparsely beautiful rendition of "Our House," a gorgeous piano-and-harmonies take on "Only Love Can Break Your Heart").
Yet "Let's Impeach the President" falls where it does (toward the end, before suddenly appropriate or timeless pieces like "Ohio," "For What It's Worth" and "Rockin' in the Free World") because most everything else about the set comprised the case against him.
His most egregious offense, according to CSN&Y: blocking coverage of military funerals while not attending any himself. Set aside the politics (if you can) and you'll discover that that's the bottom line with these grizzled '60s holdovers, the point they made again and again: Thou shalt not kill, period, and thou shalt not launch a questionable offensive that has led to 2,500 American deaths in three years and counting.
I've said virtually nothing about how they actually sounded. Suffice to say that, as on their other reunion tours this decade, Y brings out the best in C, N and especially S, whose soaring, technically superior soloing makes for many riveting duels against Y's more visceral and unpredictable approach. (It also was delightful to see them dig up "Treetop Flyer" alone, and to notice Y striking old Buffalo Springfield poses at times.)
They play like what they are – men in their 60s – and like most granddads they're sometimes squawky and shrill. Y and N don't vocally mesh as well as N and C, for instance, and S is mostly just huff these days.
But there is a passion to this particular tour that they may never have shown before – not collectively, anyway. I'm not old enough to have witnessed them when they were my age or younger, but I've seen footage, heard live cuts – and believe me, they have never played so robustly, so fiercely.
They haven't reinvented anything. They didn't have to; the times simply made their greatest work deeply resonant again. "We are leaving," they sing at the end of "Wooden Ships" like a quartet of Klaatus who can't convince the earth that it just might stand still soon enough.
"You don't need us."
Yeah. Sure we don't.
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