In 1974, after completing a summer tour with David Crosby, Graham Nash and Neil Young, Stephen Stills launched a solo tour which stopped in my home town of Detroit in March. I was fortunate to see a sterling, dynamic performance at the largest Masonic Temple in North America, an old and ornate venue, from a front row balcony seat. Stills was at his peak, and he put together what had to be one of the hardest rocking bands of his career, the sort of band Crazy Horse has always been for Neil Young.
This unnamed band, and the recording master, seem intent on highlighting the impressive lead guitar interplays between Stills and Donnie Dacus, who would play a major role on a later studio album by Stephen, 'Illegal Stills'. For the most part, Stills contributes a psychedelic wah-wah, at times in rhythm guitar mode, while Dacus rips off one sterling solo after another. Jerry Aiello's keyboards and Russ Kunkel's drums resound loud and clear as well through the high decibel mix. A bit muted are Kenny Passarelli's bass (I suppose something had to yield the right-of-way), and especially Joe Lala's percussion, better suited to the more tempered sounds of Manassas. Stills handles virtually all the vocals, although Dacus and Passarelli occasionally add some surprisingly harmonious harmonies.
The real magic of this live performance, recorded over two nights at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre, lies in the song selection. By this point in his career, Stills had an impressive catalog to select from, and his choices are an eclectic mix of his own best work, coupled with some impressive covers. Of the 11 songs featured, 4 were penned by other artists.
The album is divided between an electric and acoustic set. On the CD, the opening number is a scorching version of 'Wooden Ships', the Crosby-Stills composition from the first CSN album. The only drawback to this arrangement is that Stills handles all the vocals, blurring the dramatic verbal interplay between the two warring soldiers featured in the opening lyrics. Nonetheless, the hard-driving spin Stills puts on this take has always sounded to me like the 'right way' to play 'Wooden Ships'. Despite some brief audible feedback on the lyrics early on, this may be the best rendition of 'Wooden Ships' ever put on record.
Two Buffalo Springfield compositions are included, the timely (considering the year, 1974, was in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam era) 'Four Days Gone', which paints a sympathetic portrait of a draft evader, with Stills sitting in on piano. This song represents the only respite in a burning electric set. A raucous rendition of 'Special Care' concludes the electric set in a highly frentic mood, and this is the only time Lala's vibrant percussion can be seriously appreciated.
Inserted between these Springalo Toones is the centerpiece of the electric set, a chest pounding medley of the Joe Walsh masterpiece, 'Rocky Mountain Way', and the blues-rock Manassas number, 'Jet Set'. Stills and the band segue seamlessly between the two numbers, which adapt to an amazingly complementary musical structure. The only drawback here is a muddy attempt by Stills to replicate Walsh's deft use of the voicebox on Barnstorm's studio version of 'Rocky Mountain Way'.
The acoustic side is just as artistically rendered and eclectic as the powered side. 'Change Partners', from Stills second solo album, is a beautiful opening selection. The set ends with a somewhat predictable choice from the same album, 'Word Game'. Sandwiched between are '4+20', a crowd favorite, again from the debut CSN LP, and 3 unusual covers. First up is another medley, mixing the classic, up-tempo blues of 'Crossroads' with Chuck Berry's barreling 'You Can't Catch Me'. This robust medley is followed by the completely unpredictable choice of Fred Neil's hit, 'Everybody's Talking At Me'. Unlike the electric set, where Stills all but takes a backseat to Dacus, the acoustic numbers feature some of the finest guitar work Stills has ever put on record, no small accomplishment.
Inspiration is dripping from these performances, and the recording is remarkably clean, especially the acoustic set. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a rock audience showing enough discipline today to actually allow an uninterrupted performance of acoustic music such as we have here.
So in a number of ways this brief slice of Live Stills serves as a timepiece reminding us of 'what was', both in our own lives, and in the career of a remarkable musician. And give the dearth of live material from his most productive years, this CD is a 'must-have' for fans of Stephen Stills.