Crosby, Stills and Nash :: Royal Albert Hall, London, 8-10-13/9-10-13

To dream of being in a successful band, perhaps in a different era, when the music industry worked in ways it doesn’t anymore. To make your way around the roadhouses, stinking pubs and clubs, along the B-roads of England and America. To push through an overstuffed landscape with a million other bands trying to get into a couple of magazines, the grey broadsheets and 40 chart spaces. To craft your songwriting, get a break, get a deal, the support slots that move you up the ladder, the first hit, the songs you get known for, to reach a point in culture where you’re recognised in the street. To start squabbling with your band members over stuff that, now, you can’t even remember. To search for an escape, a route out of there. This path, this well-known route, has happened to countless bands, like, let’s say, The Hollies (I’m not a fan, very twee), Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds . To work so hard to get there, and then to give it all up, walk away from everything because it didn’t feel right. You’re miserable, so you quit, or get fired, meet some cool guys, and form what would now be called a supergroup, in the hope that band number 2 is better. The chance of being in one big pop group is to face astronomical odds of failure. To get it, quit and have a second go? Madness. And yet, three men from those three bands not only did it, but the second band they formed became 10 times more successful than their original groups.

And so the splits went down like this: Graham Nash, from Salford, Manchester (though born in Blackpool), wrote a jaunty tune called Marrakesh Express and his band, The Hollies, hated it, which started off the trouble. I had always, somewhat unfairly, teased that Nash was a little Ringo-ish: a guy with the perfect personality who just fitted in with the more talented ones. I do find him a little cheesy, I admit, with his mid-Atlantic accent, but he’s a brilliant songwriter, with a lovely voice, and he’s even got a creditable second career, having been a digital art pioneer in the early 80s, as a rather excellent photographer. This is the man Joni wrote Blue about. There must be more to him.

David Crosby is truly one of my favourite people on earth. I met him once, at a solo show at the Jazz Café. I’d seen his former bandmate Roger McGuinn there earlier that same year, and though I’m not an autograph person, I happened to have pinched my parents’ Byrds box set and took the booklet along. Management gofers took handfuls of memorabilia, returning with signatures. McGuinn, well known as not being the nicest guy, refused to meet anyone. Crosby, on the other hand, held court in the bar upstairs, talking warmly with everyone, signing everything proffered at him. I have no recollection of my fangirl babble, but I do remember that he looked at me with the kindest face I’d ever seen, his big cheeks puffing out as he smiled, framing his magnificent white handlebar moustache. It’s what God, if he existed, should look like.

As he started to move away from the volcanic troubles in The Byrds, he found himself delving further into a hippy ideal and nowhere was that purer than, not Woodstock, at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. Of all of the landmark rock festivals, and there were plenty, that one, for me, is the standout. It had the best bill, the best atmosphere, no trouble, no lack of facilities and a manageable medium-sized 60,000 strong crowd (though the performance spaces only held 8,000 each, so most missed the bands; everyone was there for the vibe, man). Gene Clark had already left The Byrds by then, driven out by the stress of dealing with everyone else, McGuinn and Chris Hillman in particular. During their appearance, Crosby went off, ranting about Vietnam, and then further annoyed his bandmates by stepping in for an absent Neil Young to guest with Buffalo Springfield, at their leader Stephen Stills’ request. The cracks were there and, as these things go, it all happened pretty fast. Stephen and Graham quit, and David was fired. The three met for the first time at David’s house on one sunny Laurel Canyon day in 1968, and sang together for the first time.

Famously, Woodstock was only the second Crosby, Stills and Nash show. Neil Young, who did play with them briefly there but was too nervous to be filmed, had also jumped the Springfield ship and, of course, has been in and out of the band for many decades. But for me, it's all about the core three. The spikiness of Stills, who knows he’s the leader only when Neil’s absent, and the brotherly Crosby and Nash, who’ve made great duo records and often tour together. I’d seen them live at Glastonbury in 2009, though my overall experience that year wasn’t positive, and I remember little of their performance anyway. I got a last minute ticket from a woman called Barbara; after my failure to get Fleetwood Mac tickets the other week, it felt like I was meant to be there.

However much I thought I'd enjoy this concert, it completely exceeded my expectations. It was a 3-hour odyssey through some of the best songwriting of the last half-century. Crosby is now 72, Stills is 68 and Nash is 71. It’s dull to talk about ageing rock stars. There are no ageing painters or playwrights. There’s no need to be shocked when, despite grey hair and slightly wider waistbands, a band like this are in great shape. It’s what they do, what they’ve always done. They’re touring, hardened musicians who have been playing live for almost 50 years. Their energy does not flag, while new songs are numerous and hit the mark. ‘These new songs stop us from being The Eagles’, Graham quipped. One must admire their bullish insistence on playing several new compositions every night; as we know, many of their contemporaries don’t bother, either because of fear of clearing the venue or because the creative wellspring ran dry long ago. Nobody leaves for a loo/pint break during these new songs, like you usually see at gigs like this. And by ‘like this’ I mean the nonsensical concept of oldie or nostalgia acts. Get on, play the hits, the tickets are expensive, I want to get home before 11, the crowd think. A venue’s size at this level can, I think, influence the setlist, the choices made. At the Royal Albert Hall, which seats a crowd of around 4500, there was an undeniable emotional intimacy. Playing in a ‘small’ venue (as opposed to, say Wembley Arena or the O2) lets them indulge themselves a little more, maybe playing a more varied setlist. Perhaps it felt so intimate because I had seats on the surprisingly cosy floor. They made it feel like a living room.

This band have survived it all. Coked-up 70s madness, death (Crosby’s girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in a car accident, which it’s been said he’s never recovered from, though he has been evened out by Jan, his wife of 36 years), fighting (you sense Neil vs. Stephen was the main attraction), a couple of overdoses (Stills, in the 70s), and yet they kept getting drawn back together. From the opening chords of Carry On , from 1970’s Déjà Vu, this was such a special night. Those three voices soared, backed ably by a brilliant band: Todd Caldwell, organ; Shane Fontayne, guitar; Steve DiStanislao, drums (superb!); Kevin McCormick, bass, and James Raymond (Crosby’s son) on keyboards.

There’s something about the beauty of vocal harmonies at this level (there’s little, Beach Boys aside, this good) that always gets me. In particular, David and Graham’s voices ache with exquisite sympatico. The tempo never dropped, incredible pop songs just kept on coming: Almost Cut My Hair (a Crosby tour-de-force), Buffalo Springfield song Bluebird, performed without C&N, which brought a rapturous ovation following fiery guitar work, Long Time Gone (used in the opening scene of Woodstock of course), the perfect pop of Nash’s Military Madness, it was endless. Cathedral was prefaced by his tale of its creation, “One day I decided to get up really early, take acid, rent a Rolls Royce, and go to Stonehenge. In those days you could touch the stones. I lay on the ground for a thousand years, or it could have been 10 seconds, I couldn’t tell. I walked to Winchester Cathedral, and found myself chilled to the bone as I stood on the grave of a soldier who had died in 1799, but on my birthday.” The RAH’s newly restored pipe organ was bathed in red light and its tones filled the room (though it was begging for a Spinal Tap papier-mâché model to descend). Before the sweet tale of domesticity that is Our House (which has had a second life as an accompaniment to various TV adverts), he started off by talking about Joni. One day they went out shopping and she saw this nice little vase, which he encouraged her to buy. When they got home, he said ‘I’ll light the fire, you put the flowers in the vase that you bought today.” The crowd broke into warm applause, recognising that simple post-shopping trip sentence as the first lyric couplet.

It went on: Helplessly Hoping, and its perfect harmonies, brought tears to the eyes, Crosby’s signature love song Guinnevere, Déjà Vu, Southern Cross, the magnificent Wooden Ships and, of course, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. New songs and old, mountains of charm and passion, the kind of togetherness you feel lucky to witness, from men who’ve been through everything together, through rain and shine. I was overcome, by history, songwriting, guitar playing that’s hardly done like that anymore, and that sweet trio of voices. Unforgettable night. Graham’s hometown show in Manchester happens on Saturday, I envy my dad that he’ll see this remarkable band (for the first time: he’s seen solo Stills, CSNY and C&N, but never just all three).


I’ve just made an offer on Scarlet Mist for a ticket for tonight’s show. Bonkers, you may say, but if a chance is in front of you, take it without regret.

Incidentally, it seems to be considered odd to see multiple gigs on one tour. Few understand why I’ve done it so often. It’s normal to see the same band a year apart, on the next tour, but strange to see them a day apart? In all honesty, I haven’t felt like this for 18 months. I’ve enjoyed the gigs I’ve attended, but last night felt like something old was coming back, some spark of joy in myself that had been lost. It’s a tiny step, but nevertheless, it feels very real. That’s why I’m going again. More to come…

So, the second show. An even better seat this time, giving me a new angle, letting me see details previously invisible. Graham Nash performs barefoot, who knew? The stage is festooned with rugs and a couple of scarves. The interplay is much clearer second time around. You can still see, even now, the divisions between Stills and the others. I wonder if he’s jealous of their brotherhood? Maybe. I do think he’s bemused and annoyed by not being Neil Young. You get the sense he can’t believe he’s not playing arenas by himself whereas the other two don’t care at all, they’re just happy to be performing. A passage in Nash’s autobiography sums up the differing vibes, the personalities, of his bandmates: “I had never met anybody like Crosby. He was an irreverent, funny, brilliant hedonist who had been thrown out of The Byrds the previous year. He always had the best drugs, the most beautiful women, and they were always naked. Stephen was a guy in a similar mould. He was brash, egotistical, opinionated, provocative, volatile, temperamental, and so talented. A very complex cat, and a little crazy.”

Graham, though it pains me to praise a United fan, is very charming. Joni’s famous quote about free love (what bullshit it was, how it was only good for men) was, I suspect, said with him in mind. She’s the one that got away, certainly, but his wandering eye paid to that, though initially she had tracked him down and seduced him. You constantly hear ‘hey, it was the 60s/70s!’ to excuse a lot of misogynist behaviour. Not that times and the perception of morals weren’t different then. Joni had had a brief fling with Crosby, who wasn’t the possessive type and was cool when she invited Graham to live with her on his first day in LA. Indeed, he later shared one of his other girlfriends with Nash, who stole Rita Coolidge from Stills, who had a long relationship with Judy Collins and so on and on. But the machinations and treatment of women in the 1970s is a subject for another day…

I enjoyed the second gig just as much as the first, undoubtedly. It was another intimate, emotional night, which made the venue seem small. It was fun, as it always is, to watch middle-aged, middle-class, white people try to let go. A foot tap, a head bob, polite applause for Stills’ guitar virtuosity… English people are so tightly wound sometimes. Particular treats were To The Last Whale, from Wind On The Water, Crosby & Nash’s 2nd album, and a magnificent version of Triad, David’s odd yet sweet invocation of the benefits of threesomes. He’d written it during his time in The Byrds but McGuinn rejected it, horrified. Jefferson Airplane were not so squeamish and took it on, covering it on their album Crown Of Creation. Again, the S-only (no C&N) version of Buffalo Springfield’s Bluebird just blew me away. I closed my eyes and, during the free psychedelic blues jam freakout of its second half, was simply transported to another place entirely.

It’s hard to put your finger on what keeps this band together, given their histories of bickering and drug trouble. I can only surmise that it’s just pure chemistry, the non-narcotic kind, because when you watch them live it’s a magical experience. They know it, from first note to last: that they are greater together than apart. It’s all about those hugely different voices. The high notes left Stephen long ago, but a gravelly tone serves him so well, despite the odd note missed. Amazingly, Graham can still sing in a nicely high register, which is particularly welcome and surprising. Perhaps David’s voice is the strongest individually, which considering he’s been through decades of drug addiction, culminating most spectacularly in a spell in prison in the early 80s, almost feels shocking. It’s like watching Keith Richards’ gnarled, deformed, arthritic hands play a perfect solo during Sympathy For The Devil. It makes no sense but there it is, your eyes and ears don’t lie. He’s got the same childlike joy as Keith has; he’s a survivor who’s just happy, and genuinely surprised, to be alive. The harmonies might not hit the same high notes they used to but during Helplessly Hoping it was like time stood still, I’ve never heard voices so sweet. Even in lower tones, it was remarkable to witness. As the band left the stage and I took a deep happy breath, the tannoy led the crowd out with refrains of We’ll Meet Again. I hope so.

Carry On/Questions (CSNY)
Pre-Road Downs
Long Time Gone
Just a Song Before I Go
Southern Cross
Marrakesh Express (night 1 only)
Lay Me Down (C&N)
Military Madness (night 1 only)
Time I Have
Bluebird (Buffalo Springfield)
Déjà Vu (CSNY)
49 Bye-Byes

Set 2
Helplessly Hoping
Teach Your Children (CSNY)
Treetop Flyer (Stephen Stills song)
Golden Days (2nd night only)
What Are Their Names
Burning for the Buddha
Triad (Jefferson Airplane cover)
Critical Mass/Wind On The Water (2nd night only)
Our House
Almost Cut My Hair (CSNY)
Wooden Ships

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes



Dad’s report – amazing, emotional show. Judy Blue Eyes was not played (they ran over the curfew I suspect). Graham dedicated a song to his sister and her family, who were present. David said ‘I have so much to thank Manchester for; you gave me my best friend in life.’

Dad wanted to add to this the story of how he ignored Joni Mitchell. In early 1970 he was working in Burtons, a men’s clothes store on Deansgate in Manchester. A crowd of four came in and he immediately recognised one as Graham Nash. He ran up to him and engaged him in conversation, and they chatted for a while. He told Graham he’d just bought the first Santana album and loved it, to which Graham replied that they’d just played a gig with them in New York. They talked about music, and Graham bought a sheepskin coat for his step-dad. What a trip, right? A few weeks later a colleague said ‘wasn’t that amazing, when he came in with Joni Mitchell’. The blood drained from dad’s face.

The three women had been Graham’s mother, sister and girlfriend. He had ignored her completely, so wrapped up was he in talking music. He later wrote to MOJO, apologising to Joni for ignoring her, as she was the love of his life, adding ‘don’t worry, my wife knows about that!’