Neil had no strings left on his guitar. None. They all hung, curled and severed, from his Les Paul as “Rockin’ In The Free World” shrieked to an end. Merely 18 years old, my college roommate and I stood agape having just actually seen Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young in the flesh on their first tour since 1974. The show was immense - wholly satisfying to two college freshman who had, a number of times that year, stood in awe staring at the stereo listening to Stills and Young trade solos on mammoth renditions of “Carry On” and Young’s “Southern Man” on the ensemble’s 1971 live release, 4 Way Street. A mere two years later, I crossed the four-way street again, catching CSNY on their 2002 tour. They sounded muted, tired and…old. The fires that had burned in their bellies in 2000 had been reduced to embers; 2002 was a time for banding together as a nation behind our government (joke was on us) in the wake of the 9/11 attack, and CSNY’s wheelhouse had always been attack mode against authority.
Take this dichotomous experience, though not quite as dramatic of a difference, as an analogy in assessing CSNY 1974 with respect to its live album predecessor. CSNY 1974 has been a long time coming (no pun intended); the tour is one with dubious history and anecdote, one generally despised by its performers but had been, by and large, critically lauded at the time. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were a spectacle – the world’s first bona fide supergroup – and this tour was just as much of a spectacle, comprised of dozens of sold-out football stadium shows (keeping in mind, there were often other huge names as part of the bill as well), so there is inherently historical reasoning behind the box’s existence. As diverse, contradictory, and mercurial as the band itself, this set can be sliced and diced a number of ways, and often conjures just as many questions as answers, but I will offer you this stratification – the CSN(&Y) tunes, the Crosby, Stills, and Nash solo offerings, and Neil Young’s songs.
The CSN(&Y) songs are obvious inclusions, many are deserved classics, and they do not disappoint here, but they also do not transcend either as they often do on 4 Way Street. Crosby is suitably gruff and full of enough pathos, necessary qualities to balance out his tendency toward melodrama, to make his “Long Time Gone” and “Almost Cut My Hair” successes, Nash turns in a cozy, and shade bittersweet, solo rendition of “Our House”, and “Ohio”, while seemingly a tad subdued and, in a way, stately, hits the mark as expected. The solo cuts by the original trio members are scattershot, Nash’s faring the best given his knack for melody, which balances out his tendency toward melodrama, and Stills’ almost uniformly mediocre at best, dreadful at worst. The band member closest to proving one of the tour’s anecdotal complaints true – that the group was in poor voice – we’re subjected to his cock-rock, bloozy rendition of “Black Queen”, the woeful disco tendencies of “My Angel”, and his never ending plod through “Myth of Sisyphus”. Stills’ lone bright spot is a rather excellent take on The Beatles’ “Blackbird”, he in fine voice here, buoyed by sublime vocal harmonies.
The real gems of the box set are the previously unreleased until now and previously unreleased at the time Neil Young songs. Young’s morose, and since critically acclaimed, On The Beach saw release that very summer and the title track and “Revolution Blues” benefit here from the band’s added muscle, particularly Stills’ six-stringed interplay with Young. “Mellow My Mind” from the not yet released Tonight’s The Night album, “Long May You Run”, a duet with Stills (that he nearly wrecks) later released on a collaboration by the two, and “Don’t Be Denied”, just released on the prior year’s (and now long since deleted) Time Fades Away are particular highlights. A combination of songs from the aborted CSNY sophomore album, Human Highway, and Young solo effort, Homegrown, largely hit the mark as well; “Traces” ease is infectious while “Pushed It Over The End” stands up to any of his “Doom Trilogy” material; both “Hawaiian Sunrise” and “Love Art Blues” showcase Young’s countrified soft side and his impromptu Nixon kiss-off, “Goodbye Dick” is the cherry on top.
1974 in America was bereft of much actual good news or tangible successes, instead a road mostly paved with moral victories. Vietnam had died down but still dragged on, the Cold War, too, had thawed ever so slightly with a decade of Brezhnev under its belt, yet the government-constructed evil spectre of Communism perpetually loomed in the backs of everyone’s minds, and Tricky Dick Nixon self-deposed, leaving us without the opportunity to actually try him and in the lap of the only marginally functional Gerald Ford.
Much in this vein, CSNY 1974 is the same. Four giants reassembled, heaving their great weights at destiny, and missed the mark. Nothing came of the tour for the group and not much coalesced for any of its members either in their immediate futures. But they did it, they reunited, they tried, and tried hard; if the material was suspect on occasion, it wasn’t for lack of effort, and rather than resting on the laurels of their mighty back catalogue, they paraded out their own songs, new songs. CSNY 1974 does an unerring job at capturing a must-capture moment in music history, it’s just the moment acquits itself as more a valiant effort than a resounding success.