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SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – As a veteran concert goer, and self-professed CSN aficionado, I pretty much know what to expect when I go to see Stephen Stills perform, namely a fantastic example of Rock and Roll at it’s best, with flawless vocals, screaming guitar licks, and brilliant musical compositions put out by a 50 year veteran who has been there for the most seminal moments in our history. This time, I was wrong, as was any other attendee of last nights The Rides show at the Wilbur Theater in Boston, as I had seriously underestimated what lay before me when I stepped through the door. In fact, I think the last time anyone so underestimated an upcoming musical performance, was when a few teens looked at each other during the summer of ’69, and said “….I dig the music, but I’m not sure the sound will be any good at the field up in New York, and I hear it’s going to rain.”
If you came to the show, as I did, expecting a “Stephen Stills concert” with a “new back up band,” then you were probably just as stunned as I was as we were taken on a musical trip like none that I have ever experienced, and one that I still find it a bit hard to describe. Try this, if you will. Close your eyes and forget that you’re at the majestic Wilbur Theater, and imagine instead that you’re on a magical train from New Orleans to to Austin Texas, and as you’re rolling down the tracks, you’re locked in a rail car with Stevie Ray Vaughn, Muddy Waters, BB King, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Duane Allman, John Mayall, and Jimi Hendrix – each of them playing against each others licks like two great stags battling on top of a mountain! Yes, this is what we were mesmerized with last night, times ten, as legendary guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Stephen traded off scorching, yet elegant licks that augmented each others work, and did so with a level of mutual respect, so as not to step on each other either. With legendary keyboardist, songwriter and producer Barry Goldberg wailing away on his organ, and long time CSN/Jackson Browne bassist Kevin McCormack, and Stevie Ray Vaughn drummer Chris Layton keeping the beat, Stills and Shepherd managed to weave a mysterious intertwining of licks that looked like an exercise in pentatonic brilliance like none I have ever seen. Here in this little section of the South, where we were seemingly taken for two solid hours, the passing blues note was our best friend, and the heart and soul of the blues was there for all to see and enjoy.
As a guitar player myself, I was fixated on how seamlessly they were able to do something which many, I’m sure, didn’t even notice, namely the ability for two players to switch off lead and rhythm duties, actually within the very same lick. It’s a bit hard to describe, but in 99% of the bands you see, one guitarist is playing lead, and one playing rhythm. This makes it pretty easy to go off on a bit of an improv, and just jam a bit as they did in the good old days. They may switch those roles from one song to the next, or even from one part of the song to another, but this wasn’t anything like that. Here was you saw was Stills ripping away on lead, with Shepherd playing a growling, staccato, 1-3-5 blues progression, yet as Stills came around to resolve on the 5th note, he suddenly was playing the rhythm, and Shepherd had now taken over the lead! How they managed to coordinate that, while still making it seem like improvisation, is something I just have to chat with them about at some time. As if that wasn’t enough, they did something else that is very, very rare in the musical world; something I have not seen anyone outside of the Allman Brothers attempt (ironically Stills and Shepherd ran into the Allman Brothers that night, who were in Boston and staying at the same hotel!) Twice during the concert, as they were banging against each other with amazing call and response lead licks, they went into pure, matching harmonies, with one playing 3 intervals above the other in absolutely FLAWLESS sync. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve seen Dickey Betts and Duane Allman do it on songs like “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” or “Jessica.” It’s really, really hard to do…and usually when you hear something like that on a song these days, it is as a result of musical effects in the studio. Doing it live, however, is not for the faint of heart, and let me tell you, these guys simply nailed it!
They dipped into each of their solo catalogs a bit, as was to be expected, but did everything with such a cool twist that as they ripped out the Stills classic “For What it’s Worth,” I truly felt like making up t-shirts that said “The Buffalo Who?” Yes, it was that brilliant, that seamless, and that filled with the type of passion that you so rarely see in a musical performance these days.
Stills was clearly having so much fun that he could barely contain himself, and often didn’t, as he burst into that classic Southern smile of his and started giggling, no doubt reflecting back on his youth playing the blues down in Florida, long before becoming what many think of as the one of “quintessential Californian’s” that laid down the soundtrack for two generations of music lovers. I have heard him play before, (dare I say 50 to 60 times without being called a groupie?), but this was a side of him that I have never heard before, and so to me it was like eating the last candy in a box, only to find out that there was an entire other layer hidden just underneath the paper. Don’t get me wrong, Stephen has always had chops, but it was as though he felt, in some way, free to showcase a side of his blues heritage that would have seemed out of place in a CSN type performance. This was somewhat reminiscent of David Crosby’s CPR project, featuring the ever so talented Jeff Pevar on guitar and the brilliant James Raymond, with his jazz background on keys, lapsing into 10 minute jam sessions of Crosby classics like Long Time Gone, but doing it as a jazz-fusion tune.
Anyway, I digressed. The set list was filled with tunes from their new CD “Can’t Get Enough” such as “Roadhouse”, “Search and Destroy”, “Talk to me Baby”, and “Word Game,” along with as well as an amazing rendition of Muddy Waters “Honey Bee,” and a cool Elnore James tune “I Can’t Hold Out.” For one of the encore tunes, Stills pulled out the Classic Neil Young tune Rockin’ in the Free World, and man did he ever rock! Hopefully Neil has had the chance to hear this wonderful homage from his old friend, because I think even he would be impressed – and as many would say who have tried before, impressing Neil isn’t an easy thing to do.
They have a few more dates on the tour, and I’m telling you as a music lover that if you miss seeing this band live, you will regret it forever. This is something truly magical that comes along once in a life time. Here’s a link for tickets to the remaining shows. The Rides Tickets.
While we’re talking about cool, once-in-a-lifetime tours, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that Stills lifelong partner, and one of my personal favorite musicians, the one and only Graham Nash, will be kicking off his first solo tour in over a decade on September 11th, at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Ridgefield, CT. His tour will be passing through the Northeast throughout mid-September, with a stop here in Boston at the Wilbur on the 18th. Again, this is an opportunity that you just cannot afford to miss, as Graham will be out with a dynamic trio consisting of James Raymond and Shayne Fontaine, and will be digging deep into his own catalog of masterpieces, no doubt thrilling audiences, as always, with his unique combination of brilliant musicianship and charm. To order your tickets for the Nash shows, you can click this link. Nash Tickets.
David Crosby, is kicking back for a moment and polishing off his own new solo CD, eating some of wife Jan’s fresh homemade salsa, and preparing for the recently announced Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reunion – the first since 2002, which will take place at the Bridge School Benefit Concert in October. If that goes well, you just never know what 2014 may bring. With Young haven’t recently cancelled his 2013 Crazy Horse tour due to the injury of one of his bandmates, and Crosby recently chatting about his wish to do another CSNY tour, anything at all can happen, based, as always on where Neil’s muse is hanging out at any given moment. If that happens, no doubt I’ll be there, and yet I really must confess that I’d gladly trade my CSNY tickets in a giant arena for a night of intimate music with Nash, Stills or Crosby in one of our nations great little theaters where it’s a totally different type of experience.
For now, lets just rejoice in the fact that at a point where many would be content to sit back and reflect, these guys keep giving us the gift of music year after year, and getting better every time!