Crosby, Stills & Nash: Surprisingly Relevant and They Still Sound Good

The iconic rock group performs at NYC's Beacon Theater and makes a major political point about Bradley Manning and American politics.

When my friend Paulette -- addressing me as an "old hippie" -- invited me to last Saturday night's Crosby, Stills & Nash concert at New York's Beacon Theater, I immediately said yes, out of loyalty to my hippie roots. But secretly, I had my doubts. I'm one of those boomers who rolls his eyes at the ubiquitous nostalgia tours undertaken by aging rockers, many in their 70s, still prancing across the stage. This summer, older high grossers on concert tours included Van Halen, Elton John and the Beach Boys. Believe it or not, there was also a "Happy Together" tour with the Turtles, the Monkees, the Grass Roots, the Buckinghams and Gary Puckett. Oh dear.

Two years ago, in a piece titled, "Stuck in Time: The Ancient English Band The WHO Is Playing at Half Time at the Super Bowl," I blasted the NFL for featuring the Who at the Super Bowl, only to be reamed by readers defending their right to love 50-year-old music. OK, I get it. When it comes to music, I like to mix the old with the new.

There are many terrific newer bands; younger acts who are great and not derivative (and those who are derivative of CSN, like Fleet Foxes, that are also good). Some of my newer favorites include Temper Trap, the XX, Zero 7 and Sia, and My Morning Jacket. I think some boomers and Gen Xers miss out by sticking to the Creedence Clearwater Revivals of the rock world. Of course, these somewhat ancient bands love what they are doing, and are making some serious dough from a loving audience. This was CSN's 79th concert stop on a tour that has been going on since January. According to their publicist, every show has been sold out. The Beacon last Saturday night was a very happy place.

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Past Love

Make no mistake, I loved Crosby, Stills & Nash and Neil Young when I was coming of age. I consider the first CSN album and Deja Vu to be among the 100 best rock albums of all time. I was at Woodstock in 1969, when Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang for the second time ever as a super group, in their short-lived first phase together. CSNY uniquely captured the gyrating kaleidoscope of the late '60s and early '70s, their fantastic melodies transporting us to the back-to-the-land ethic with such hippie fantasies as "My House" ("...two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard"). Combine that with killer songs like Crosby's "I Almost Cut My Hair," and the apocalyptic "Wooden Ships," and you have a group whose influence on the music scene is profound. 

CSNY is rock royalty, having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame several times in various incarnations. The band was spawned by iconic mid-to-late '60s groups including Buffalo Springfield (Stills and Young), the Byrds (Crosby) and the Hollies (Nash). At the Beacon, the band played Buffalo Springfield hits "Bluebird" and the haunting "For What It's Worth" ("something's happening here, what it is, ain't exactly clear..." ) which showcased Still's virtuoso guitar work. 

Surprising and Pleasing Two things pleasantly surprised me at the concert. First, the band's musical acumen. They were terrifically enjoyable, as they smoothly, energetically and (relatively) in tune, sang many of the audience's favorites. David Crosby's voice is extraordinarily powerful. Stills' voice was not quite there, but his guitar playing was astounding in a way I had not remembered. For a moment I thought Eric Clapton was out there on stage. My CSNY roots are deep. 

The second surprise was the band's strong progressive politics. David Crosby raised their role as a political band during the concert, but the true political conscience appears to be Graham Nash, who spoke passionately of Bradley Manning, tortured by solitary confinement in a 6-by-12-foot cell with virtually no human contact. The band sung "Almost Gone (The Ballad of Bradley Manning)" written by Nash, who explained that Manning's representatives say he has been driven crazy by the conditions of his imprisonment, and that "he is almost gone." Nash's advocacy for Manning and other political issues mark an arc going back to 1968, when he wrote iconic songs like "Chicago (We Can Change the World)" for his solo album Songs For Beginners, and songs like "Military Madness" and "Immigration Man."

Nash Art at ACA Galleries
In a brief conversation backstage, we talked briefly about Nash's art show, a collection of his work that includes photo-collages of world events. (The show is at ACA Galleries and it ends on Saturday, so run down and check it out.) I asked Graham Nash how it came to be that the English guy penned the powerful political song "Chicago (We Can Change the World)." He told me the song was written after Wavy Gravy asked him to come to Chicago to protest the trial of the Chicago 8, following the violent police riot during antiwar demonstrations at the Democratic Convention in 1968.   Nash said he wrote the song to his friends Stephen Stills and Neil Young to come join him and sing in protest. The first line of "Chicago" is, "So your brother's bound and gagged, and they've chained him to a chair" which is about  Bobby Seale, who was restrained and eventually severed from his peers in that trial by the notorious Judge Julius Hoffman. It's a steady path of repression that winds from Seale and the Chicago 8 to Bradley Manning today. A warm thank-you to Jeffrey Bergen, proprietor of ACA Galleries and his partner Dorian, who invited my friends Paulette Cole and Joshua Mailman to the CSN concert I was lucky to attend.

Don Hazen is the former executive editor of AlterNet.