Crosby, Stills and Nash: Trio sails in creaky ships

Friday September 3, 2010

LENOX -- The wooden ships that Crosby, Stills and Nash used to sail across a long, two-set show at Tanglewood on Wednesday night were a bit creaky, groaning with effort and taking on water in places, but ultimately remained seaworthy -- if a bit soggy.

The iconic group, backed by a four-piece band, ranged across an expanded setlist -- including a curiously generous sampling of cover songs -- and triggered an enthusiastic response from an appreciative crowd.

To its credit, the group turned in a performance that did not feel workmanlike (though one or more of the principals seemed perhaps to be under the weather); to the contrary, it felt at times to be painfully difficult to create the desired results.

Steven Stills seemed the most at home, particularly when wandering away from the band for one of his many solos on electric guitar. Graham Nash seemed vaguely cranky, and David Crosby, his hair blowing from an onstage fan, maintained his placid, beatific expression whether watching his bandmates sing the verses of "Southern Cross" or digging into the lead vocals for his own "Almost Cut My Hair," a minor classic from the band's great "Deja Vu" album.

I can't exactly put my finger on what was so off about late-career gem "Southern Cross," for instance, except that the vocals felt they were always an inch from going off-track, and the full-on rock backing sucked away the sublime charm of the original version.

Whereas artists like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen have embraced the changes wrought on their vocal cords by age, adjusting their styles accordingly, CSN is welded to the sweet, high-harmonies that define its work, and must dutifully strive to re-create them. Sometimes everything clicked, such as on "Wooden Ships," which featured nicely calibrated vocals and a comfy groove from the band.

An acoustic "Guinevere," early in the second set, also came off well, each guitar note floating into the still-summery air as the band's three namesakes reminded everyone why they became such a big deal in the first place. It felt, in short, right. A cover of "Long May You Run," a 1975 collaboration between Stills and Neil Young, came complete with a turn on harmonica by Graham Nash and succeeded mildly.

But in a jukebox sequence where the band offered acoustic covers of well-known songs by The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, and Allman Brothers, the thematic disconnect underlined the creaky vocals to prompt the question: Why? "Norwegian Wood" evinced a few winces, and when the group tried to inspire a singalong for the Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," it was just plain strange.

The band succeeded better on its home turf. A moody, sultry workout on "Déjà vu" was a showstopper. A nice surprise was the all-around triumph on "To the Last Whale," from a 1975 album by Crosby and Nash, featuring excellent acoustic work this night from Stills.

You wouldn't say any of the three were in prime form, but with the strength of the material and the forgiving mood of the crowd, the concert worked more often than it didn't. Somehow it all amounted to more than the sum of its parts -- which is what this band has always been about.


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