Following the bitter breakup of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Stephen Stills released two solo records before forming Manassas, another super group of sorts, in 1971 with Chris Hillman, of The Flying Burrito Brothers. Joining them were Al Perkins (guitar), Fuzzy Samuels (bass), Paul Harris (keyboards), Joe Lala (percussion) and Dallas Taylor, who had played drums with CSNY. The band issued their first album in 1972, a double LP that was a powerful and eclectic concoction that featured some of the finest work of Stills’ entire career. Manassas was also a formidable live act, touring America, Europe and England. The band produced one more album, the under-rated Down The Road, in 1973 before disbanding that same year. And then nothing – until 2009, when Pieces was released, an album made up of alternate takes and leftovers from the bands all too brief existence. Why some of this material was not committed to vinyl at the time is something Stills himself has questioned, because it is of a very high standard indeed.
The album kicks off with “Witching Hour”, an autobiographical piece Stills wrote about his experiences with CSNY: “It’s about the reason I took off from CSNY in the first place – like, I’m being used here, and I’m not sure why.” Recorded during the making of Manassas’ first LP, perhaps the song’s sentiment cut a little too close to the bone when it came to his relationship with David Crosby and Graham Nash, and is perhaps the reason as to why it was shelved.
“Sugar Babe” was a song from Stills’ second solo album, but this version is superior, in my opinion, where Stills’ soft and soulful vocals are more than amply supported by the group.
Chris Hillman’s influence on the sound of Manassas was undeniable, and “Lies” is a good example of this. A later version would find its way on Down The Road, but this earlier take features Joe Walsh on guitar, giving the song a tougher edge. The all acoustic “My Love is a Gentle Thing” is the odd one out here, having been recorded by Stills in 1975, and therefore has nothing to do with Manassas whatsoever. Nonetheless it’s a sweet and endearing demo, and one which inexplicably Stills never revisited.
“Like a Fox” is one of this album’s highlights, and is notable for having Bonnie Raitt on backing vocals. According to Stills the reason it was put aside was that he felt the song wasn’t quite finished and required further work, but it sounds more than fine to me. I guess the luxury of a great song writer is that he can afford to let the odd gem go unnoticed. “Word Game” is a track which first appeared on Stephen Stills 2, and here we have a version which Manassas recorded during a rehearsal, as a way of warming up before a show, and is reminiscent of Elvis’ version of “Mystery Train”, only played at a much faster pace. After about a minute and a half it fades meaning either the band continued jamming or the thing just fell apart soon after. On the rhumba instrumental “Tan Sola y Triste” the listener is taken on an all too brief trip to South America, before we get all down and bluesy on “Fit To Be Tied”, where Stills shows off his impressive skills on the wah-wah.
The country-rock “Love and Satisfy” is a Hillman original which for some reason was left off Down The Road, at the last minute apparently. Which is a shame as it’s another pearl of a tune. “High and Dry” goes back to when Stills would jam with Jimi Hendrix, where together they recorded a track known as “White Nigger”, a song which remains in the vaults. But Stills never gave up on it, as this re-recording makes obvious. On here Stills plays some heavy, dirty wah-wah, while the audience sound was added as an afterthought.
The next three tracks take us into bluegrass territory in the form of “Panhandle Red”, “Uncle Pen” and “Do You Remember the Americans”, with plenty of violin, mandolin, and drumming straight out of a John Wayne Western. Not my cup of tea I’m afraid. So let’s leave it at that. “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)” continues the country and western theme, and is not a terrible song I guess, but not being a fan of the genre necessitates that I press the forward button.
Stills saves the day (for me at least) with the acoustic blues of “I Am My Brother”, yet another great performance left on the cutting room floor. Stills has always been an old blues bluesman at heart, and just like “Black Queen”, off his first solo LP, we have him preaching like a white Robert Johnson in the hope of exorcising his many demons through his guitar and voice, and a befitting way to end what is a most enjoyable collection of rarities and a real treat for long time fans.
Stephen Stills was one of the most prolific song writers of his generation, something which goes without question. And on Pieces Stills has perhaps provided us with a rewarding final chapter to all the complex elements which made Manassas one of the most musically accomplished bands not just of their era, but any era since. What a pity that they weren’t able to persist.