FIFTH TIME AROUND: CROSBY, STILLS, AND NASH LIVE AT THE PEORIA CIVIC CENTER by Mike Foster
In the case of Crosby, Stills, and Nash in concert here in Peoria on March 12, 2014, the fifth time turned out to be the charm.
And our second meeting with Graham Nash backstage after the performance was better because it was a surprise to me as well as our artistic autistic elder daughter Martha. It came ten years and one day after Jo, Martha , and I’d taken an eleven-hour bus ride from Canterbury, England, where I was teaching English literature at Canterbury Christ Church University College, up to Manchester. Both of these meetings were the blessed handiwork of Janalee Sutton Croegaert, Graham’s cousin-in-law.
But on with the show.
This splendid two-set 25-song performance bravely featured not only the old standbys beloved since 1969 but also younger-than-yesterday new gems (one so fresh that only Crosby knew it and he had to noodle around a bit to catch the groove) and “Bluebird” from Buffalo Springfield in 1967.
This nearly sold-out Peoria Civic Center Theater gig shines on brightly as simply the best show by anyone anywhere anywhen anyway anyhow that this old rock dog has ever seen.
And I’ve been at seven Rolling Stones gigs beginning in 1964 and saw the Beatles in August ,1966, in Chicago, the first date on their last tour, and Jimmy Page with The Yardbirds in December of that year at Expo Gardens.
The Wednesday, March 12, show was enriched by being shared with my wife Jo (her fifth time around, too; our first was CSNY in Madison in 1970) and daughters Megan, 39, and Martha, 44, both fourth-timers, in a four-seat balcony box. We’d expected an 80-minute one-set recital of the classics (as Nash said later, “The ones that the people put their hard-earned money down for that we have to play”).
Instead, the first set began at 7:33 and broke at 8:55. After twenty minutes, the group returned. They didn’t quit making glorious, gorgeous music until the encore “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” ended at 10:37.
They led off with Stephen Stills’ “Carry On/ Questions” from Déjà Vu, one of five from the first Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album, released in 1970, a year after their eponymous Crosby, Stills, and Nash debut. Four songs from that debut disc were featured, including its opening track, the first song we’d heard from them 45 years ago, which was their sole encore ten nights ago.
“Chicago,” the second song, was the first surprise. Nash continues to speak out against the madness to this day. Barefoot during the first set, he moved to piano for this indictment of the 1969 Chicago Seven trial of protesters at the August, 1968, Democratic convention, including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale. Seale was the “brother bound and gagged and they’ve chained him to a chair” alluded to in the opening line. Later, “Burning For The Buddha,” dedicated to Tibetan monks who’ve immolated themselves protesting the Chinese government, show the fire of protest injustice still burns brilliantly in his song-writing.
It shines on brightly in David Crosby as well. “Long Time Gone,” his jeremiad written after the June, 1968, assassination of Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, was third. Considering that Crosby had undergone heart surgery, only 26 days before on Feb. 14, the powerful singing he did boggled all of us all night long. He had undergone a cardiac catheterization, in which two stents were inserted into the heart. Had the blockage remained untreated, he most definitely would have had a heart attack, his doctors said.
But on March 12, he was in good voice and good cheer.
“I didn’t even know there was such a place as Peoria,” he said, forgetting his 1990 visit here. “I’m from L.A., man.”
Passing the song picks around like a peace pipe, Stills next played his ode to sailing as redemption, “Southern Cross.” The clear acuity of their harmonies astounded us more than ever.
Their superb backing band, a quintet featuring Crosby’s long-lost son James Raymond (keyboards), Sting and Springsteen veteran Shane Fontayne (guitar), Steve DiStanislao (drums), Kevin McCormick (bass), and Todd Caldwell (organ), provided stiletto-sharp instrumentation as well as occasional backing vocals. It’s a family affair; Nash’s second son, Will, is his father’s road manager.
“Lay Me Down,” a Crosby-Nash song, was fifth, followed by Crosby’s “Radio,” co-written with his son James Raymond. Another nautical song, truly it is about saving and being saved, a subject the singer knows well.
“Just like in the movies a message
Comes through all the static and hiss
Pulling just enough words from the storm-filled sky
To know that someone somewhere needs this.
The radioman runs to the wheelhouse
Got that message held tight in his fist
An SOS off of the wireless
Saying someone somewhere needs this.
For you to look out, look down
And reach your hand into the water
For you to look out, look down
And pull someone out of the sea.
You are the captain and this is your ship
You will have to decide what gets done
Think about it when you’re on watch tonight
‘Cause someday this message will come.”
Nash’s tribute to Levon Helm of The Band, which he said was their second-favorite group after The Beatles, “Back Home/ The Weight,” ended with the refrain of that classic hymn to unwanted responsibility: “And you put the load right down on me.”
“Cathedral,” his song about tripping in Winchester Cathedral, was next.
Concertgoer Megan Foster Campbell wrote:
“ ‘Cathedral’ was great. I liked how the lights changed for the song. It was dark (except for the red lights). But then when Graham sang ‘seven o’clock, in morning, here it comes,’ the lighting went to a dim blue, as if it was just before dawn onstage.”
Next came Stills’ early masterpiece “Bluebird” from Buffalo Springfield Again, that band’s second album released in 1967. Susan Nash’s cousin, Peoria musician Dan Sutton, said:
“I wondered if they would do any other songs from their previous groups but I forgot all about it as they continued to play songs from their collective catalogue which is more impressive than ever when you hear these songs back to back, all done perfectly, and such a variety. The happy ‘Our House’ contrasted with the more involved and evolving sound of things like ‘Déjà Vu’ reminded us of what great songwriters they are. Graham mentioned how they continue to write and how great it was to present their new music to such an appreciative crowd. The pleasure was ours. His answer to the question of how they write songs: ‘We have no fucking clue!’ Crosby said he uses a pencil. At the end of the show, Crosby put his hand under his coat and made a beating heart while pointing to the audience as if to say ‘my heart beats for you.’ He looked great. So did the other two. A little Grecian Formula and they’d look almost like they did at Woodstock.”
“The first concert [his older sister] Janalee [Croegaert] and I ever went to together was CSN in Chicago at the Auditorium Theater, August ’69, their very first live performance. A few days later at Woodstock, Stills quipped ‘This is our second gig, man. We’re scared shitless.’ That early concert was incredible. This show was, too.”
“Déjà Vu” followed. As with many songs, the crowd began cheering once they recognized the riff. And as with many, this one opened up to some superb jamming. McCormick’s bass solo was that rarest of birds: a really musical bass interlude.
The first set ended with “Love The One You’re With,” from Stills’ first solo album, came next. Todd Caldwell’s searing Hammond organ break expertly replicated the one on the record.
The raging inferno of that song was soothed by “Helplessly Hoping,’ another first-album song rich in alliteration and harmonizing, which opened the second set.
“Here For You,” a stunning new Nash item, followed. We in the Foster box had no idea what the next one was and neither, it seems, does anyone else. Crosby sang it solo.
“He said something like ‘Just let me get into this a little bit’ as he warmed to the chord progression,” wrote Janalee Sutton on March 19. “He must have come to feel better about our home town by that point in the evening. He has a little teasing put-down of Peoria at the opening of the show.”
“Treetop Flyer,” Stills next item, was a weed-smuggling opus that was obsolete “due to Colorado.” It evoked “Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” and Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues.” Earlier, Nash remarked that “We write and play new songs, unlike The Eagles.” Crosby riposted: “Man, Henley’s gonna kick your ass for that.” Nash was unperturbed by that possibility.
Dan Sutton declared after the show:
“Many highlights, too many to remember. Stephen Stills, walking across the stage and the spotlight that couldn’t manage to follow him. First he waited in the darkness and gestured up at the light: ‘Hello ! Here I am!’ Later he pointed in the direction he was headed: ‘Okay, spotlight, go back this way.’ I wanted to go back and work the spotlight myself.”
Stills and the band had more old Fenders than a used car lot in Creve Coeur. Early on, I kept copious notes on who played what on each tune. But I’d forgotten how hard it is to write in total darkness Crosby returned with “What Are Their Names?,” a political accusatory song prosecuting “the men who really run this land,” even more apt today than it was on his first solo album released in February, 1971.
“Guinnevere,” his lovely love (and in retrospect, tragic) song again showcased his fluid guitar melody and the group’s gorgeous harmonies.
Nash’s Orientalesque “Burning For The Buddha,” co-written with James Raymond, followed. Introducing it, Nash spoke sternly of the 128 Tibetan monks who’d immolated themselves protesting the Chinese government’s mistreatment of their country:
“Like the fire in my belly / like the surface of the sun / I lay my life down / for the holy one / …the ashes will never wash away.”
His tender hymn to Susan Nash, “Just A Song Before I Go,” quenched the sacrificial fire with tender love. “My wife’s family is from Peoria,” he said. The audience applauded and cheered. “Actually, I thought there were only eight of you here,” he quipped, referring to the number of backstage passes Janalee had commandeered.
Crosby’s “What’s Broken” from his new solo album Croz followed:
“Dodging kindness like golden arrows
Shading treasure from uncivil eyes
Tunnels steaming with the breath of a dragon
Cathedrals warming to the sunrise
Who wants to see an abandoned soul?
Who wants to try and open it?
Who wants know what desperate is?
Who wants to buy what’s broken?
Looking out on a buzzing city
Molecules go flying by
Standing here is a very lost disciple
How could it be that angels lie?”
Fifth from the last was “Our House,” one of the songs they had to play. At the piano, Nash related the true story, included in his must-read autobiography Wild Tales, of how it begins with what he actually said to Joni Mitchell when they returned after a day of shopping early in their romance. “And I don’t care what you Americans say. It’s ‘vahhs,’ not ‘vace.’ It’s our fucking English language.”
His “Teach Your Children” followed, which he dedicated “to all the teachers here.” He urged the audience to sing along. We did.
Crosby’s freak-flag anthem “Almost Cut My Hair” came next. Though his hair is snow-white now and starts farther back on his forehead, he nailed this one to the wall like a trophy cougar pelt.
Longtime friend Nancy Slevin said as we drove her back to Jonah’s Oyster Bar where we five had dined before the show to fetch her car:
“I was so happy to see how well Stephen Stills played guitar, and that it was clear by his style how much he has evolved and been inspired creatively by those who came along after him, including the younger artists out there now. It was a display of youthful vigor, whereas David Crosby came across as the old sage to me, in a good way, and I mean that with all respect to his artistry. Graham Nash’s voice was just as good as in the past. They talked about their political opinions. I am always so glad to see that bravery and courage in artists. The people with all the brains and power so often fear retribution, not realizing their voices could help many who lack the power and the ability to express themselves.”
Janalee Sutton Croegaert wrote a week after the 2014 show:
“Best for me – sitting next to my brother Dan. My overall impression – fabulous, tight band, 70-year-old rockers in remarkable form and voice. Wonderfully appreciative audience, cheering and singing the familiar, attentively receptive and responsive to new tunes. Loved it that David shared a very new song, just his voice with his guitar accompanying if I remember correctly. ‘Just A Song Before I Go’ and ‘Bluebird’ were favorites. ‘Teach Your Children’ just grows more true the older I grow. It was the ‘parent & child dance’ at the wedding reception of our son Jacob and his bride Carolyn. We sang as we danced.” rendition.
The splendid second set finale was a long version of “Wooden Ships.” As Megan Foster Campbell, who was only ten when she first saw CSN in Springfield in 1985, said “It was pretty darn good, although I noted that Stephen Stills hasn’t sung his part in years.”
Jo Foster, Martha and Megan’s mother and my date, commented yesterday:
“I was amazed at how strong and crystal clear David Crosby’s voice was, almost as if he had given up smoking (wink, wink). I don’t remember him ever sounding that good.
“I was knocked out by Stephen Stills’ guitar virtuosity. Although someone said he was named as one of the top guitar players, I didn’t realize how truly good he is and he was walking around all the time.
“I don’t think it was an accident that Graham Nash was positioned on center stage, in between Stills and Crosby. He is the glue that holds CSN together. His voice and harmonies make their unique sound.
“Their continued creativity is what makes them more than a ‘nostalgia’ band. I’ve seen lots of ‘60’s bands in concert and all have lost a step or two. CSN has not; they are better than ever.”
After the obligatory all-band bow and farewell wave, the band departed.
But the 2,008 attending (95 percent of capacity, according to Peoria Civic Center marketing manager and recovering Foster ICC journalism student Dan Aspell , who was there) would not be denied. They stood, cheered, whistled, whooped, and yelled for more.
The trio returned. “You didn’t go away,” Stills jested.
And so the last song that we heard that wonderful Wednesday night was the first song we heard on their first album in 1969, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Age has not withered nor custom staled its infinite variety and beauty. All three vocals shone like white diamonds.
Then they were gone.
But we weren’t .
Only 15 minutes before the show began, Dan Sutton showed up at my elbow as we four Fosters and Nancy Slevin chatted. Then, to my utter surprise, his sister Janalee from Evanston, was there, too, bearing her surprising gift: backstage passes to see Graham.
She, my wife Jo, and Nancy conspired secretly to surprise me with this priceless present. Megan had been let in on with the secret only minutes before, and, as with our first meeting with Graham in Manchester ten years and one day before this night, we didn’t tell Martha until the show was over.
“She held my hand so tightly as we walked backstage,” Nancy said later. Martha was wearing the scarf Susan Nash had given her in 2004, and seeing it, Graham said, “Oh, that’s early Susan.”
As he was in Manchester, he was witty and gracious. We congratulated him on singing so many new songs, and he took the compliment well. Janalee shared old photos of her and her cousin Susan Nash with Graham and Susan’s son and road manager Will Nash.
Martha’s evaluation: “I think it was a terrific performance. Meeting Graham again was a magnificent miracle.”
Graham hugged Nancy and then Martha and Megan. “A pretty girl under each arm,” he said. “This is rock and roll.”
And it was, the best night of it ever, with the Chantilly whipped cream and bright red cherry on top of magnificent concert being the surprise backstage convocation with the admirable Nash.
He, Crosby, and Stills are still teaching us well. We still learn from them.