Not just an ampersand but a time warp seemed to separate Neil Young from Crosby, Stills and Nash at their Bowl debut Monday night. While Young performed songs from this year’s “Living With War” (Reprise), directly confronting the political realities of the 21st century, his compatriots apparently feel that the best way to express their displeasure with George Bush and the war in Iraq is with songs protesting Richard Nixon and the war in Vietnam. It made for an oddly bifurcated evening.
For the half of the 3½ hour show in which Young took the spotlight, you could believe that music may have the power to change events. He and a band that includes longtime Young collaborators Spooner Oldham and Ben Keith performed songs with a raggedy intensity that perfectly suits the material’s broadside emotions.
He opened the show with “Flags of Freedom,” a compassionate account of a family sending their son to fight in Iraq; they ended the second set with “Find the Cost of Freedom,” accompanied by thumbnail photos of the war’s 2,576 fatalities. He’s especially offended by the fact that President Bush has yet to attend a funeral of a fallen soldier (a fact twice mentioned on the “Living With War” news reports that run during his songs). With CSN adding their harmonies in place of the 100-voice choir on “War,” the new songs bristle with a righteous anger.
The other three never left their late ’60s/early ’70s comfort zone. You could argue that Nash’s “Military Madness” has some relevance today, but it’s hard to make that case for Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” or Nash’s “Chicago” — for most people nowadays, the image of someone “bound and gagged” and “chained to a chair” does not bring up memories of Mayor Daley and the ’68 Democratic Convention. And closing the first set with “Deja Vu” only served to remind people that, yes, we all have heard this all before.
Their attitude turned protest into nothing more than a pose; it’s as if they believe that by replicating the sounds of ’60s protest, they’ll be able to ignite a similar movement today. Like one of the peace signs on their backdrop, the band is looking a little worse for wear. Nash’s voice is often strained, while Stills’ is ravaged. When he takes the lead, the results are sad to hear; unlike other singers whose voices have aged badly, he doesn’t seem to have figured out ways to get around it. On “Wounded World” and “Treetop Flyer,” he veers into Bob Dylan territory. Crosby, on the other hand, ignores all medical science, retaining his voice against all odds.
For all its faults, a show like CSNY’s brings up some intriguing questions about what protest music in the 21st century should sound like. In our more corporate time, in which record labels and radio stations tread lightly on controversial topics, perhaps only a band such as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, which no longer cares about radio airplay and has a loyal cadre of fans, can get away with calling for the president’s impeachment and project the lyrics of Young’s indictment onto giant video screens. They may be preaching to the choir, but it’s still good to hear.
Bands play Jones Beach on Long Island Aug. 22 and 23 and Gotham’s Theater at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 27.