Fleetwood Mac had nothing on Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young when it came to internal discord. But like the Mac pack, CSNY managed to leave much of its friction at the stage door. And to the extent that it couldn’t, it often used its competitive squabbles to fuel first-rate music.
This fascinating and well-recorded new document of the group’s final tour leaves no doubt of its potential for greatness—or of the fact that it was destined to dissolve. There was little collaborative writing by the quartet and little sharing of the stage at these stadium shows. What we get is a David Crosby song, with backup by his three bandmates; then a Stephen Stills song with support from the other three; and so on. Neil Young’s numbers in particular seem more like the work of a soloist with backup than of a group of musicians content to stand together in the spotlight.
That’s not to say that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young lacked rapport; on the contrary, their harmonies and guitar exchanges here are almost uniformly excellent. After hearing this 40-track, three-CD album, though, you won’t have any trouble understanding why the group broke up.
There are anachronistic elements to the package, which was recorded just after Nixon resigned the presidency and as the Vietnam War was winding down. David Crosby talks about the 18-minute gap on the Watergate tapes and the program incorporates such topical songs as “Goodbye Dick,” “Chicago” and “Ohio.” Meanwhile, Stills’s “Johnny’s Garden” proclaims, “I’ll do anything I got to do, cut my hair…” while Crosby sings about letting his “freak flag fly” in “Almost Cut My Hair.” On an accompanying DVD of eight previously unreleased performances from Landover, Maryland and London’s Wembley Arena, all four group members can be seen sporting enormous sideburns.
But while some of the lyrics and visuals here will transport you to another era, nearly all the music—culled not from a single show but from the best moments of multiple recorded gigs—still seems vital today. Organized like the concerts in the series, with a shimmering acoustic set sandwiched between rock outings, the album includes many of CSNY’s best-known tunes plus previously unavailable rarities like “Love Art Blues,” “Don’t Be Denied” and the aforementioned “Goodbye Dick.” Among the many high points: a sweet acoustic reading of Young’s affecting “Long May You Run,” a spirited, guitar-driven “Wooden Ships” and a bluesy “On the Beach.” “Guinevere,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and a cover of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” all show off the group’s exquisite harmonies.
There are a few missteps. “Love the One You’re With,” for example, features a throwaway Stills vocal, and his “Black Queen” sounds like the kind of thing the punk/new-wave movement arrived to counteract. But with more than three hours of music here, it’s not difficult to forgive the occasional lapse.
This collection, which includes a 188-page booklet of notes and period photos, is of course not the only document of CSNY’s concert work. There’s the chart-topping 4-Way Street, from 1971, which is worth hearing but arguably not quite on a par musically with the new recording. (It’s not as wide-ranging, either, and includes versions of fewer than a quarter of the tracks on CSNY 74.) There’s also the group’s charming but often tentative-sounding four-song Woodstock performance, during which Stephen Stills famously commented, “This is the second time we’ve ever played in front of people, man. We’re scared shitless.” Five years later, when the group recorded CSNY 74, they seemed not scared at all onstage—on the contrary, they sounded self-assured—but their story was almost over. Don’t miss this memorable last chapter.
Note: You can buy CSNY 74 in several formats other than the three-CD-plus-DVD box described above. If you cut your hair years ago and have since become a hedge-fund manager, you might want to spring for the numbered, limited-edition “deluxe box set,” which includes 180-gram vinyl LPs in a laser-etched case, a Blu-ray audio disc, a DVD and a coffee-table-size book, all delivered in a custom-made wooden box. According to the CSNY official website, the exclusive purveyor of this edition, it will set you back $499, plus a hefty shipping charge. Wow. I still remember the days when record album prices like that had a decimal point after the 4.