by Scott Allen
Crosby, Stills and Nash Fox Theatre August 2, 2012
Musicians who have played on stage for nearly 50 years have a good idea what their audience wants to hear when they plunk down their hard earned money to see a show.
Thursday night, a large contingent of 50 and 60-something St. Louisians dropped plenty to gather in the red padded seats of the Fox Theatre (527 N. Grand Blvd.), surrounded by the ornate Siamese Byzantine architecture, and take at trip back in time to spend an evening with a group of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers - Crosby, Stills and Nash. They did not come away disappointed.
On tour to support a new DVD release, CSN 2012, the group's first performance video in over 20 years, the three musicians -- David Crosby, 70, Stephen Stills, 67, and Graham Nash, 70, still possess their trademark vocal harmonies. With their chops mostly still intact, the group led the audience -- filled predominantly with people in their 50s and 60s -- through nearly two and half hours of songs that had touched them 40 years prior. The three performers made it evident to all those in attendance after the opening track, "Carry On/Questions," that they had not lost the ability to entertain.
The torch bearers for the singer/songwriter movement of the early 1970s, the work of Crosby, Stills, and Nash topped the charts for years with its blend of folk inspired rock that influenced peers and still resonates in the work of newer bands like Dawes or the Fleet Foxes. "Late in '68, I was living in North London and I received a cassette from my new friend David Crosby. In '68, he was writing this kind of shit," Nash explains before Crosby's "Long Time Gone." Known for their tumultous relationship over the years, the three got along together nicely on stage, so much so that Crosby and Nash seemed to act like an old married couple, pitching jabs at each other whenever possible.
Halfway through the opening set the tone turned toward the smooth rock of their late '70s and early '80s output. First up, "Just a Song Before I Go," from '77s CSN got the crowd in the mood, but as the opening chords of "Southern Cross" wafted through the theatre, the dancing by the 50-somethings ensued. For Stills this was his first shot at a lead vocal for the evening, and unfortunately he didn't quite have it yet. He seemed to mumble his way through the lyrics as Crosby and Nash helped to pick up the slack on the harmonies. Though, Stills' ability to play guitar has never failed him. He played dazzling solos throughout the course of the evening, but there's no mistake that his voice has lost a step with the march of time.
The Fox Theatre with its sightlines, gorgeous acoustics, and stunning design played its own role in making the evening special.
"Whatever you do, don't tear this down and put up a 7-11," Crosby says, referring to the historic venue. "Musicans around the world know about this room," he continues.
Just before his off-kilter track, "Déjà Vu," Crosby told the audience that each member has his place in the group. "Stephen writes the rock and roll while Graham writes the anthems and I write the weird shit. It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it and I like it," he says. The song featured solos from each member of the band including Todd Caldwell on B3 organ, St. Louisian Shane Fontayne on guitar, Steve DiStanislao on drums, Kevin McCormick on bass, and Crosby's son James Raymond on keyboards.
As much musicianship and vocal prowess the group demonstrated in the first half of the show, the real display happened in the second half of the evening. "We have a few quiet ones for you," Nash explains simply. "Helplessly Hoping," from its 1969 debut album began the second set fully demonstrating the magic of the men's three part harmonies. Crosby, as he is wont to do, took an opportunity to crack wise at the crowd's attention to the music. "I want you to know that when you're texting like that everyone can see your face," he jokes.
Whether or not his ploy worked, the next few tunes were worth paying every bit of attention to as Nash followed with a solo tune, "In Your Name." With lyrics, "Lord, are you listening to a prayer from a simple man? Can you stop all the sadness, can you stop all of this madness? Can you stop all of this killing in your name?" the song bites like the earlier political song "Immigration Man," but the lyrical sentiment struck a stronger chord with the audience even though they weren't as familiar with the newer song.
Stills introduced the next number as a song he learned in his early 20s and a songwriter they could fit into the set even though there was plenty of songwriting experience on stage. As he led Crosby and Nash through a cover of Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country," it was easy to see that even after 50 years, these contemporaries of the songwriter were still just as nostalgic for Dylan's work as the crowd was about their music. Not to be outdone and wielding only an acoustic guitar, Crosby and Nash delivered a showstopping version of "Guinnevere" to keep their folk side at the forefront.
The surprise of the night came inauspicoulsy. For the most part, the band had shuffled through the same setlists for the shows on this tour, but last night Nash advised they had pulled an audible. "We asked Stephen if he'd play this one and he agreed. We haven't done this one in twenty years," Nash exclaims. The strains of "Find the Cost of Freedom" fit the mellow acoustic mood perfectly and pulled together the politically charged vibe of the second half of the show. While not a perfect performance vocally from Stills, the special quality of hearing such a rare treat and symbolism of the song was not lost on the crowd and resonated with so much at stake in an election year.
Bringing the mood of back up slowly with three Nash songs in a row - the powerful "Cathedral," the politically charged "Military Madness," and the homespun classic,"Our House" - the show neared its rock climax. Crosby's rocker "Almost Cut My Hair" featured bluesy guitar theatrics from Stills that thrilled those watching in their seats, while a stretched out "Wooden Ships" brought the main set to a close with a slow burn.
The anthemic "Teach Your Children" opened the encore and roused the audience to it's feet to sing-a-long. After a long round of applause and a mini-meeting on stage with the three principals, the three settled on what still remains as their defining hit over 40 years later, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," to end the show. Fully warmed up, Stills provided the guitar accompaniment and flashes of greatness on his lead vocal as Crosby and Nash added their beautiful respective mid and high harmonies. The band filtered back on stage to back them up just in time for the crowd to sing along with the "Do-do-do-do-do" part at the end and wrap up the evening perfectly.
While the setlist, including twelve songs from the first two classic records, stayed safely within the confines of what the audience came to see, Crosby, Stills and Nash made certain to include enough surprises and excellent performances to send the crowd home satisfied.
Personal Bias:: My favorite member of the group has always been David Crosby for his amazing voice, stand-out songwriting, strong opinions and his work with the Byrds.
Overheard: "I think Stephen Stills has lost his voice." - random fan during intermission
Random Detail: At the merch table you could purchase a Crosby, Stills and Nash beach towel for the low price of only $65.
Setlist: Carry On/Questions Immigration Man (Graham Nash) Long Time Gone Just a Song Before I Go Southern Cross Lay Me Down (Crosby & Nash) Radio (new song written by Crosby/Raymond) Marrakesh Express Almost Gone (The Ballad of Bradley Manning) Bluebird (Buffalo Springfield) Déjà Vu Woodstock Intermission Helplessly Hoping In Your Name (Graham Nash) Girl From the North Country (Bob Dylan) Guinnevere Find The Cost of Freedom Cathedral Military Madness (Graham Nash) Our House Almost Cut My Hair Wooden Ships Encore: Teach Your Children Suite: Judy Blue Eyes