Whatever you think of Crosby, Stills and Nash, you’ve had to give them credit for speaking their minds. A holdover from the era where all politics were personal, a good deal of their credibility accrues from their deeply held political views; the band was never afraid to shoot from the hip, or let its freak flag fly. But American flags were the order of the day at CSN’s Greek Theater appearance, their first show since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Both wearing and waving them, the sold-out crowd made its view known.
They reacted enthusiastically to the hits, but appeared frustrated by CSN’s taciturn nature, waiting for the usually voluble stars to address “Topic A.” Yet the band’s comments traded in the most generic, noncommittal platitudes. Taking this politically expedient route robs the music of any context, turning this once outspoken band into the most cowardly of vaudeville acts.
It’s not that you expect them to have any answers — who could at this juncture? — but you would like them to at least acknowledge or confront the questions.
What do the lyrics “I’m not giving in an inch to fear” mean today? Or “find the cost the freedom”? They’re not saying.
Only David Crosby edged toward engagement, but even he refused to make the leap. His introduction to “Dream for Him” started out referring to the attacks, but ended with him claiming that he wanted to “tell my kids the truth.”
A tough statement to argue with, since he neglects to let us in on what he thinks the truth is. And their lush arrangement of “My Country ’tis of Thee” found the trio wrapping themselves in the flag like the most blandly spin-doctored of politicians.
It’s easy to understand why: CSN is bound to disappoint, whichever side it takes on this issue. If the band members come out in favor of the military buildup, they open themselves to charges of “selling out” or pandering (what’s more it would be out of character for musicians so heavily identified with the anti-war and environmental movements). If they come out against it, they risk alienating many of their fans. Either choice would rub away the thin patina of nostalgia that covers the band.
And nostalgia is all CSN have left. The harmonies are ragged; their voices have for the most part deteriorated into raspy ghosts. In an irony worthy of O. Henry, only Crosby, whose health has been an issue for the past decade, sounds robust.
The music has not aged well, either. Backed by a three-man rhythm section, CSN purveys flabby bar band boogie suffering from middle-age spread. Stills is the best player onstage, but his solos tend to run out of ideas before they finish, and jams such as “Wooden Ships” sound tired and pro forma.
There were a few bight moments: a haunting duet between Crosby and Nash on the former’s “Guinnevere”; the pop swagger of “49 Bye Byes”; and the attenuated coda to Stills’ “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” fulfilling the song’s ambition to be the American “Hey Jude.”