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CSN&Y- journey through the past
Authors: Michael Watts / Steve Lake
Journal: Melody Maker
September 21st 1974
WEMBLEY – SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 14: The Wembley Music Concert, starring Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell and the Band went off … well, okay is probably the best word. Not climacteric, or transcendental, or phantasmagoric, or even plain outasite – just … okay. I mean 72,000 people showed up from all over Europe (according to the promoter, Mel Bush), and the peak of excitement recorded two cats in front of the stage doing an Indian shuffle dance to a one-note jam on “Carry On”?
All right, so there was one miracle, in a month when it seemed that Britain had cornered the market in meteorological depressions, the sun shone in a pristine autumn sky and the pak-a-macks were strictly for making life-easier on the backside. But I’d take a raincheck, all the same, on it being the “event of the year,” as it shaped up to beforehand.
Even Joni Mitchell, the most intimate performer to grace Wembley since Matthews and Mortensen lit a fire in spectator’s hearts – even she had a hard time lifting the crowds from their watchful contemplation to a higher emotional plateau. “Let’s try and get this chorus going,” she laughed a little nervously, “Laughing it all awaaay … ” Sing it like you’re really happy and you remember what it’s like to be sad.” Trying to raise the drifting heads, to catch a spark, she did the line several times.
Okay, so she’d cut her losses and ride with the oh so relaxed emotions of the day. So be it; if it was to be an At-Home for apostolic laid-back musicians of the West Coast, so be it. As for the bill-toppers, CSN and Y, they raised both the energy and decibel level – not necessarily the same thing – and just about maintained interest all the way through, which is something really for a four-hour set.
They played as if they enjoyed themselves, too, and this factor offset a good deal of what was merely competent in their performance.
But all the onstage self-congratulation! The backslaps and the handshakes, the kisses and cuddles – it was more hysteric than historic; certainly disproportionate to what was going down.
Those sins of omission committed in the name of good vibes … How churlish! you say. Perhaps you’re right. The sun was shining, and when it wasn’t the night was clear and fresh, a couple of rockets exploding in the skies over Harlesden.
Once, George Harrison peered round the amps and snapped shots of the crowd. Marianne Faithfull, in wide-brimmed hat, sat peaky faced in front of the stage – on the rough gravel, like the rest of us. And north London pubs did brutal business as the great mob sprawled in and out and around.
But the music seemed, somehow, less a focal point than a backdrop for a general mood of reserve, broken only fleetingly by moments of commitment to the performances.
It’s enfeebled spirit of our life and times, in which the elements of mystery and surprise have been lost.
The audience was content to take its pleasure quietly and without excessive enthusiasm; the artists – none of whom played badly – were only mortals on the day.
Great rock music isn’t created within a vacuum. And open-air festivals should be events, not merely visual supplements of records.
And yet right at the very end there was Graham Nash hack on his own turf, after all, with head raised to the multitudes.
“You make me very proud,” he said, a lump in the throat. And ultimately no-one could argue that it had, at least, been good-natured.
“I wish we could find somebody as good as ourselves to open our own shows,” Jesse Colin Young had remarked the day before the Wembley marathon lurched off to an uncertain start in a flurry of politics, cynicism, managerial moodies and general heaviness (writes STEVE LAKE).
Leaving musical considerations aside for a moment, understand that whatever else he might be, Jesse Colin Young is surely a trouper-and-a-half.
Get this. The day before Wembley, Elliott Roberts, manager of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, decides that just in case the show should over-run, the whole shebang will start at 11.30 and this despite the fact that the printed tickets, programmes, adverts, everything, all stipulate a noon kick-off. What’s worse is that no attempt is made to inform the kids who dutifully shelled out their £3.50s.
Anyhow, cursing through clenched teeth, one presumes, Jesse Colin Young gets out there and does his stuff, and just through sheer musicality manages to seduce the first twenty or thirty thousand folks to turn up catching them gently by the ears as they walk into the auditorium.
Young’s band is a fine one although it’s difficult to tell as the sound mixer lazily twiddles dials, exercising his fingers for the long day ahead.
Insurmountable difficulties notwith- standing, by his second or third number Jesse’s got the scattered crowd pretty well captivated.
Dressed simply in white shirt and blue jeans, Young adopts a Springsteen-Dylan-John Stewart-type stride stance, cocks his head to one side and the band tumble into “Barbados,” full of the spirit of calypso with the horns of Pat O’Hara and Bob Ferreira carnival-dancing across the lame P.A.
And it’s the horns again uppermost on “Euphoria,” a flashback to the earliest days of the Youngbloods, and now a trad jazz stomp. More typically, “Ridgetop” and “Miss Hesitation” unearth the subtler side of J.C., with much interplay between Young’s gorgeously high and breathy voice and the reeds, while Scott Lawrence comps all over the keyboards, and his big sister Suzi, who just happens to be Jesse’s old lady of twelve years’ standing nestles up close to hubby and adds some spot-on harmonies.
After a quick trip through Cajun country with Clifton Chenier’s “Lafayette Waltz ” and Hank William’s’ “Jambalaya,” Jesse gets seriously funky with T-Bone Walker’s “T-Bone Shuffle,” Lawrence jiving upfront and exhorting. the audience to clap along. They do so actually managing an off-beat, and the Young band goes off to loud cheers and are brought back for the first encore of the day, which unsurprisingly is “Light Shine”, drummer Jeffrey Myer going apeshit on the double-time conclusion.
And that’s it: the only surprise victory of the day accomplished before fifty per cent of the audience have even arrived. What’s required now is for some enterprising promoter to put Jesse on a cross-country tour with Taj Mahal and these Isles would be wiped out.
Now Young’s no chicken, being just the wrong side of thirty, but by contrast with the Band, shambling on all beards, sloops and beer-guts, he looks positively teenage. Levon Helm and Co could easily have passed for Ducks Deluxe, visually, at least.
Nonetheless, the music played was agreeable enough, if not especially distinguished, or come to that, especially interesting, and suggested that the group have done nothing to further the statements made with “Big Pink” back in the days of Woodstock.
Ah, yes, Woodstock. You’ll recall that the Band, despite having played at that memorable catastrophe, were not deemed interesting enough to be included in the celluloid edited highlights.
Maybe they just don’t function at their peak in a festival setting, leastways not without Dylan at the helm.
The most riveting few minutes in the set came as ever, from Garth Hudson at the Lowrey organ with a sheets-of-sound solo preceding “Chest Fever” that would have given the Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge food for thought, albeit fleetingly.
Otherwise, the numbers that drew the most applause were, as expected, the best known – “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” In their favour, they did also perform a rather mangled version of “Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever”; full marks for the sentiment anyhow.
A lone confederate flag flapping up front in the arena, the band at any rate had enough friends in the stadium to command an encore, or maybe people just cheered out of a sense of duty.
TOM SCOTT and the L.A. Express (writes MICHAEL WATTS) who came on in mid-afternoon, are to the Seventies what Sounds Incorporated were to the Sixties – an omnifunctional band who can back practically anyone and still hold down their own spot, the significant difference being the depth of their musicianship.
As an indication of their disparate talents, they will be stepping out with George Harrison and Ravi Shankar on the up-coming autumnal tour, while they’ve become the regular backing group for Joni Mitchell, and appeared with her at her concerts at the New Victoria earlier this year.
Scott, who plays a multiplicity of horns, is the fulcrum and an excellent soloist of the funky jazz school with a definite leaning towards John Coltrane.
But the most exciting player is the guitarist Robben Ford, a Jimmy Witherspoon sideman last year, who’s coming from the lengthening tradition of British blues/rock, and who’s developed a particular liking for wah-wah soloing.
Between the two of them they carve up the action, supported by Max Bennett on bass, John Guerin on drums and a black keyboards player in Larry Nash, who’s replaced the solidly jazz-grounded pianist Roger Kellaway since the L.A. Express’s previous visit.
In terms of competence few rock acts could hold a candle to them. They skirt the boundaries of Mahavishnu and Frank Zappa.
But in a sense they’re limited by their versatility, as is usually the problem with this kind of band, and their inability to define their own style eventually works against them from the audience’s viewpoint.
Despite all the display of technique, one couldn’t quite shake off the conviction that it was essentially interval music, a build-up for the next big act.
AND SO, after some 30 minutes, to Joni Mitchell, her face strikingly rouged, her hair pulled neatly back, and resembling, in a crisp cream shirt and grey slacks, a rather attractive riding instructress. How soon the denim fades, and in its place a chic that has more to do with Mayfair than Topanga Canyon – which is surely an observation, not a criticism.
As is evident from her more recent songs, this greater sophistication extends also to her artistic processes.
Her last album, “Court And Spark” is a good deal more complex in its expression of emotions than in the era of “Woodstock” and “Big Yellow Taxi.”
Her newest songs, as yet unreleased, continue to vein the deep lode of her emotional autobiography, and although a vast outdoor occasion is hardly the place to examine fresh chapters, at least one number was lyrically arresting – a song that strongly suggested her awareness of her worshipful attraction for men: “you come to me like a little boy/ And I give you scorn and I give you praise.”
And not even the abrupt confiscation from someone in the crowd of a tape recorder (with its microphone mounted on a length of bamboo) by a heavy dude from Artistes Services – gentlemen universally distinguished by the rotundity of their bellies – could spoil the intimacy of the moment.
Would that it had all been as delicate, but it was hard to surrender oneself totally to her on the premier playing field of Britain, with nuances, one imagined, being whisked up and away to nearby Neasden.
Something banal in the air. Too much space for the emotions to reverberate and echo back.
Most of her material, though was familiar.
A poignant “Blue,” done at the piano, an equally affecting “For Free”, with Scott on clarinet, “Help Me,” “Free Man In Paris,” “This Flight Tonight,” “People’s Parties ” – even back to “Big Yellow Taxi.”
And revving up to the end with “Raised On Robbery” – the furnace door opened – and an encore on “Twisted,” which was accompanied by a little hip-swinging at the mike and a slightly embarrassing patter, designed to cheerfully diagnose the Freudian complications in all of us. Leave that out.
Then a wind-up, with a very floral-looking Annie Ross brought out and introduced as co-writer of the song. Debt acknowledged off she went.
She was to return later in a harmonising role with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, of whom David Crosby was also distinguished at first sight by the perceptible curve of his paunch.
He’s become a trifle porky with age, and that ridiculous walrus moustache and the hair tufting wildly off his brow gives him the appearance of an eccentric, jolly uncle.
But then each of the four principals seems to have grown into a highly individual role and aspect.
Stills in his Army surplus shirt, twirling his guitar at the end of songs like a guardsman about to present arms, is very much the organiser and controlling influence, shaping each song with a solo or a lick, an air of authority and concentration shading his face.
Young is bonie moronie in an outsize, old striped jacket and familiar patched jeans, rarely smiling, his jaw hanging a little slack, the whole quality of splendid exaggeration enforced by a pair of heavy, impenetrable shades, so that he could well pass as a white version of the Tonton Macoutes.
He’s still playing the part of the Loner, the one on the periphery of all this intense camaraderie; during the jams he moves away from the front of the stage to face the drummer, Russ Kunkel, and the conga-player Joe Lala, while he and his bassist, Tim Drummond, lay down that peculiarly Young-like rhythm, plodding and inexorable.
And up there, spokesman for the day and English exile is Graham Nash, impossibly thin and wiry, a nut cutlet version of the former Hollie. Touchingly vulnerable and ingenuous, he’s instrumental in spreading around the good vibes.
He adjusts the mike for Stills, he slaps the tambourine, he moves to the congas, then to the piano and back to the guitar; he and Crosby, dark eyes a-twinkling, establish that rangy vocal base which is at the heart of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Each of them – though Crosby less so – takes a turn for the spotlight. Young sings with Joni “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” then brings out his tiny infant and holds it up to the crowd.
His songs have that characteristic air of lugubrious romance – songs of defeat, of the angst of stardom (Don’t Be Denied”); he performs them with gloomy relish.
All the same, he’s the strongest artist of the four, even if it’s only that he’s the most unsettling.
Stills is the chief soloist, his splintered, fragmented phrasing contrasting strongly with the whining treble of Young’s guitar work. He’s also an exciting player to watch, swinging the axe around, pushing it out into the audience, leaping up and down to shut off a number.
He switches back and forth from electric to acoustic, and does a fast blues pick, Joe Williams-style, on a song that sounds uncannily like “It’s All Right, Ma.”
Then he tries some fuzz guitar, the number uncomprehendingly Latin – the only reminder in his performance of the days with Manassas (and, it should be remarked, not very successful).
Young and Stills – these are the polarities of the band, but during the instrumental passages they all huddle in the middle of the stage, facing each other, so that they create a kind of power centre there.
The end of every song seems to be a signal for a required reaffirmation of the band’s newly-forged bond of friendship.
There’s much touching and grinning and rueful shaking of heads. “Whew! Boy, that was really something, huh, that solo of yours. You’re not so bad yourself, y’know. I can dig it.”
And as the evening grows steadily darker, the four are empurpled in the spotlights, moments preserved in amber for the photographers.
Still, although it’s said to be the last time they will perform together, the moments are only occasionally momentous, and they occur when the band is performing songs, rather than on the attempts at instrumental improvisation.
A fine version of McCartney’s ” Blackbird,” with Stills’ horse vocal taking the lead, Crosby and Nash smoothing out the harmonies; Neil wailing away on “Helpless” and “Don’t Be Denied “; or Nash finding a little intimate corner with “Our House.”
Our house, is a very, very, very fine house. What could be more Mancunian?
But perhaps it’s all too much of a democracy to truly succeed as a great set. One individual follows another.
They never build up a real head of steam for more than a couple of numbers.
Instinctively I found myself guessing who’d be next to step up to the mike. And the sense of them as big-name artists was frequently at odds with their actual performance.
The long jam on “Carry On,” which closed the set, was mindless and boring; Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” seemed more daft than ever – a sentiment now totally displaced in time. Their earnestness couldn’t always pull them through.
It was both right and totally inappropriate that they should finish as an encore with “Ohio”. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.”
Well, Nixon’s gone now, in almost every sense. But that song was emphatically about a particular era – about McGovern, and student politicking, and fierce idealism – and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are firmly of that era, the placard reading “Good Vibes” hung about their necks.
And that was why Saturday’s gig at Wembley was somewhat washed-out. Because, after all, you can’t help but make comparisons. Nostalgia is rampant in the blood. Where will it all end?
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