Maybe they waited too long. More than 25 years since they last toured together, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young pop open a musical time capsule and add to it a collection of generally undistinguished new material, coming up with a nearly 3-1/2-hour exercise. Appropriately enough they break up their second set with a seventh inning stretch — this show has the tempo of an American League baseball game in which the score is too high and the sameness of inning after inning magnifies the truly exciting moments while retaining a consistent din.
An acoustic segment that opened the second half captured the quartet at their strongest despite its predictability. Stills started it with “Helplessly Hoping,” Nash followed with “Our House” and Young chimed in with a glorious “Old Man.” His domination of the quiet portion continued with “Looking Forward,” the title track of the band’s latest Reprise album, and “After the Gold Rush,” which benefits greatly from the added harmonies. Crosby and Nash made their most stirring perf of the night on “Guinnevere,” but the new tunes from Nash and Crosby, “Someday Soon” and “Dream for Him,” were out and out dull. And there lies a dilemma for this act.
The trio of CSN, for decades, has followed a path of least resistance. They make the occasional record, tour consistently if not religiously, and find the magic in the songs of their 1969 groundbreaking debut. By adding Young, whose own career has been more varied and artistically invigorating, they open the door to a more aggressive style and up the ante for quality songs. But rather than meet Young on his terms, the reunion forces Young back into the closet to dust off warhorses he hasn’t touched in years (“Southern Man,” “Ohio”). He then proceeds to deliver them with intensity and verve, surpassing everyone else on the stage. Despite the homey stage set of lamps and a wooden Indian and a new album to promote, this is hippie nostalgia: In a 30-song show, one-third of the songs appeared on their 1972 live set “Four Way Street” and only one of the songs performed — Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” — was written between 1972 and 1998.
Part of the dichotomy in the Young-CSN relationship owes to how the quartet has established itself among its peers. When they formed, they were superstars embarking on an ambitious road that combined harmony, political and personal reflection and tasty guitar licks — many musicians sought their status. As Young broke away, he developed new peers, among them Bob Dylan, Sonic Youth, Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam, Willie Nelson and even the soul band that featured CSNY2K’s backing musicians, Booker T. & the MG’s. CSN, meanwhile, have spent the last two decades in musical isolation, making more news with off-the-field antics than with music. And despite some fine Crosby & Nash albums (recently re-released by MCA) since their heyday, they have acted like preservationists, mired in the notion that they are Woodstock Nation and that a CSN show, more than any other experience, “gets ourselves back to the garden.”
Just as Stills and Young tip their hat to their days in Buffalo Springfield with a nicely revised “For What It’s Worth,” so, too, should Crosby and Nash wheel out their own duo work or a song or two from the Byrds or the Hollies. It wouldn’t have been lost on this audience and it would have taken some pressure off the new material to be up to snuff, and the oldies that won’t recapture the sound of the records.
It’s the memories of the pristine quality of the album “Deja Vu” that poses the bigger problem: The voices aren’t there. Stills’ is shot, to the point where he can’t even come close to hitting the notes on “Love the One You’re With.” Crosby screams and talk-sings on the rockers.
Nash’s vocals are still a great balm, but he’s almost always in the background. (As usual, he is limited to “Our House,” “Teach Your Children” and his new tunes despite his 1970 disc, “Songs For Beginners,” being one of the best of their solo lot. Someday he’ll be allowed to sing “I Used to be a King.”) Young’s voice retains all its character and charm.
Add to the vocal limitations the echo-heavy surroundings of the Staples Center and the task of re-creating impeccable recordings and it can spell disaster. Stills’ “Carry On,” which opened the show, was so muddied by a sound system that had yet to find its bearings that it was nigh impossible to tell the vocal chops weren’t there anymore. When Young blazed through the second selection, “Southern Man,” his guitar rang through the hall with biting reproduction.
Young consistently sounded better than the other three, highlighted by “Down by the River,” which was presented as a daring display of excess and poignancy. Young is the one who has the most to gain from this tour. When he made a quick solo run around the country last year, he introduced nearly a dozen tunes, some of which found their way onto the CSNY disc. His next album, penciled in late last year for an April release, should bear a tone similar to “Harvest Moon,” the 1992 disc that was his bestselling album in decades. While his artistic vitality has never been in doubt, the new album could well stand to benefit from his raised profile that this tour affords, which could then lead to the long-awaited release of his second “Decade” anthology.
CSN has long enjoyed these nostalgia trips and certainly they’ll continue. Without an album to plug, they’ll look back to more classic material and even dive into their late ’70s repertoire. And once again they’ll be badgered with the question that has undoubtedly made them cringe for two decades: When’s Neil coming back?
Tour continues for another 29 concerts with a stop Tuesday at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim and shows April 3 and 4 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Top ticket price is a bit deceptive: $202 gets the seats closest to the stage; most of the floor and lower- level seating was priced at $76 and $51.