When it comes to the rock bands that made the biggest impact with the shortest life span, there are two come to mind that burned out almost as quickly as they ignited: the Buffalo Springfield and the Sex Pistols.
“Oh, golly!” says Richie Furay, calling Variety from his Colorado home. “What a grouping!” he adds, laughing and sounding not quite sure if the retroactive supergroup he fronted with Neil Young and Stephen Stills belonged exactly in that company.
Unlike that other short-lived band, the Buffalo Springfield were prodigious enough during their brief time on earth to produce three albums in two years, during a tenure that began in 1966 and ended in 1968. That’s enough material to fill one of the lengthy tribute shows that the Wild Honey charity puts on each year at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. Saturday night’s Buffalo Springfield-revisiting show, which will include an appearance by Furay as well as dozens of acolytes, is set to include 33 songs from the venerated group’s all-too-truncated catalog… which is to say, nearly everything they ever recorded.
(For anyone keeping score at home, the three original Buffalo Springfield albums included 34 songs, only three of which won’t be performed live in Glendale Saturday night. The total is brought up by the addition of two outtakes that first showed up on the group’s 2001 boxed set. Can you say “completism”?)
The concert follows in the wake of similar tributes Wild Honey has done to the Beatles, the Byrds, and, last year, the Band — obviously they have an affinity for “B” acts in the classic rock canon — although none of the others managed to leave so few stones from a band’s catalog unturned. The lineup includes a few performers contemporaneous — or close to it — to Springfield, including the Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz, Fairport Convention’s Iain Matthews, the Cowsills’ Susan Cowsill, and Terry Reid. But most of the bill is a who’s who of next-generation L.A. rockers, like the Motels’ Martha Davis, the Dream Syndicate, the Three O’Clock, Gary Myrick, and the Textones’ Carla Olson. The secret weapon may be guitarist Elliot Easton, of the Cars, who was heard at a Thursday rehearsal turning in solos on an extended jam of “Bluebird” that matched Young’s’ and Stills’ original licks for ferocity. (Also participating, as emcee: Variety‘s own Chris Morris.)
For a lot of L.A. fans, the tribute show will help make up for the sting of having missed the blink-and-you-missed-it Buffalo Springfield reunion tour of 2011, which came to a premature end when Neil Young decided to move onto the next thing with the seemingly similar whim that first led him to reunite the group. A few thousand lucky L.A. souls got to see the group at the Wiltern, but anyone opting to wait for the planned Hollywood Bowl shows was out of luck.
“I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘Boy, if we knew there were only going to be those six, seven shows…,” says Furay. “I was told, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do a 30-date tour’ — on both ends [of the country, at] the Hollywood Bowl and Radio City Music Hall in New York. It was all set, and the plug got pulled.”
Most bands that reunite and then fall apart again do so because they hate each other. That seems less the case with Springfield. Rather, the band was dealing with the most unpredictable man in show business.
“You think?” says Furay, letting out an extended chuckle — and, it should be noted, not sounding particularly bitter — when Young’s mercurial nature is brought up. “Yeah, that’s pretty much how it was. Because we did have fun. There wasn’t an issue that I can remember on that reunion at all. Everybody was looking forward, I think,” to the planned resumption. “After Bonnaroo, though, we walked off stage and we were gone. Everybody was off to their own separate ways, and that was it.”
Furay has paid proper respect to the group in his own intermittent solo shows in the years since. He has seven songs from those original albums that pop up in his repertoire, including several that were penned by Young but sung on record by him, which he usually performs as a medley. He’ll be doing all seven on Saturday — the first time an original member of an honoree band has shown up to do so much of the vintage material, although Al Jardine came close at a Beach Boys tribute two years back, and Garth Hudson made a lengthy instrumental appearance last year.
Furay has always said that Buffalo Springfield was first and foremost Stephen Stills’ baby, and he and Young were initially along for the ride. Stills, he said, had a definite model in mind.
“We modeled ourselves, at least vocally, after the Beatles,” says Furay. “Stephen and Neil and I were the main singers, and Stephen and I did a few songs in unison back then, as John and Paul did in the Beatles. So we definitely had a focus on those guys and what they were doing. We sat in this little apartment and we learned how to phrase together and harmonize together.”
After Young joined the fray, a good deal of the lead vocals on the songs he penned fell to Furay on that debut album, as if he were the George of the group, instead of the alpha frontman he ultimately turned out to be. The legend has always been that Young’s voice was considered too odd at the time for a broad audience to take at any length.
“I don’t know if it [came from] the record company,” Furay says. “I’m sure it wasn’t Neil, because he did sing a couple songs on the first album… My main instrument is my voice, so maybe that’s what they were thinking… Neil was so prolific and wrote so many great songs early on. … When we did the Buffalo Springfield reunion, Neil and I were sitting down before Stephen got there, trying to pick out songs that we would do. I said, ‘Hey, we do a medley of your songs in my set every once in a while. Maybe we should start there.’ He said [determinedly], ‘No. Every song should stand on its own.’”
Saturday’s show will also include some Springfield songs that Furay has never performed since the breakup. “I don’t know if anyone’s doing ‘Uno Mundo’ Saturday night or not. That’d be interesting to see,” he laughs. (Check: Carla Olson is doing that one.) “I certainly won’t be singing ‘In the Hour of Not Quite Rain.’ But somebody is doing that, I think!” (Yes, a new band called Our Truth.)
Another Furay contribution to the second album, “A Child’s Claim to Fame,” presaged the country-rock sound that he would ultimately bring into favor when he co-founded Poco after the demise of Buffalo Springfield.
“Gram [Parsons] and I became friends,” he says — living across the street from one another in New York, of all places, before they both moved to California. “And there was a time around the Byrds’ ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo,’ and Buffalo Springfield, before Poco and the Flying Burrito Brothers really took off, that we thought of an interesting avenue to pursue: to cross country and rock. … The country-rock thing evolved, and I certainly did think about it as Jimmy and I were putting Poco together, but I wasn’t really thinking about that in the Springfield” — although “Child’s Claim” is certainly a seminal song in that development, “and having James Burton play on it was really pretty cool.”
The fact that session players like Burton were involved in the second album established that Buffalo Springfield was diversifying… but it was, in effect, their White Album, more like a melding of three great solo albums than the through-and-through band effort that the debut had been. The third album, as fans know, went well beyond that, to the point of posthumousness.
“We lost our way, man,” Furay says. “It was a tough road for us out there. I mean, there were nine people in and out of the Springfield in two years, so it was very difficult for us to keep things moving along with any kind of forward progress, even though the music that came out of it was so significant.”
Although he’s 73, Furay may be touring more in the near future than he has since he started his solo career, post-Poco and post-Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, in the mid-1970s. That’s because he no longer is expected back in the pulpit of Boulder’s Calvary Chapel every Sunday morning.
“I just retired from the full-time pastorate of the church here, so it will leave me more time to do music. And I’m hoping, because I have a great little family band that I love to play with — my guitar player and his son, and my daughter sings with me — to do more shows this year. As the show gets put together for the summer, we’re planning on performing the entire ‘DeLIVErin’ album [by] Poco.”
Furay’s legend as the agreeable member of the group held up when Wild Honey founder Paul Rock asked him to participate in the benefit, held annually to sponsor special education needs for autistic children, a cause that hits home for Rock. (He estimates the org has raised more than $150,000 in the last five years of tribute shows.)
“I think when people close their eyes, they’re gonna hear the record, on the Richie stuff, because he still sings that way, 50 years later, and the band is doing faithful renditions to the record,” Rock says. It takes more than a village to recreate those arrangements so faithfully: Besides the 25 or so acts who will take lead vocals, the backing crew involves a rotation of 22 core band members, four backup singers, a five-piece horn section, and a 10-piece string component. If it weren’t a volunteer effort, you’d say no expense was spared in recreating the original recordings.
But apart from a handful of classics that still get airplay like “For What It’s Worth,” “Bluebird,” and “Mr. Soul,” “people are less familiar with the stuff” than when they’ve done, say, Beatles tributes. “Even the musicians aren’t as familiar with the deeper cuts. So we had to push people into deeper songs. But they’re all good, so that made it easy. I think people will be pretty amazed by songs they haven’t really thought about, especially from the third record. ‘Expecting to Fly’ we’ll give the full Jack Nietzsche treatment with all the strings, and I’m not sure that’s ever been done like the record, even all the times that Neil has performed it.”
Adds Rock: “The tricky part was that all these people wanted to do all the Richie songs. And he staked them out early! Everybody wanted to do ‘Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing’ (the first Springfield single, written by Young but sung by Furay). We usually tell people, ‘Okay, you give us your favorite and two alternates.’ And I had person after person giving me three Richie songs. I was like, ‘You’ve gotta start over.’”