Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are an idiosyncratic bunch I must say. A supergroup which have had more reunions and breakups than Jerry Lee Lewis has had marriages. The band had only released two albums, 1970’s Déjà Vu and the follow up, 4 Way Street, a double LP recorded live before reuniting in 1974 for a massively successful tour, the “Doom Tour” as it would be dubbed, some of which has now been thankfully preserved and presented to us here as a 4CD/DVD box set, exquisitely packaged and mastered. None of these recordings have ever been released, officially at least, which makes this collection even more special. It also comes with a whopping 186 page booklet, full of previously unpublished photos and detailed information about the tour itself. In other words a veritable treasure trove for any serious fan who over the years has had to content himself with inferior audience recordings.
Although it was a mammoth undertaking, only nine performances were professionally recorded, with the intention of compiling a live album. But for whatever reason, the tapes were shelved, and either forgotten or deliberately ignored, as if the whole thing had never happened. Certainly based on each of their recollections one would be forgiven for believing that little recorded on the tour was worthy of release, and that the entire venture was nothing but a drug and alcohol fuelled exercise in self indulgence by a folk-rock quartet of ego maniacs. But addiction and backstage antics aside, much of what is captured here is nothing less than superb. Producers Graham Nash and Joel Bernstein have done an exemplary job in compiling this impressive compendium, a task which was undoubtedly a labour of love on the part of Nash. But let’s get on with the music at hand.
We open with a percussive and bluesy “Love The One You’re With”, from Stills’ first solo album, followed by an uninhibited reading of “Wooden Ships”, which rivals the version they performed at the Woodstock festival some six years earlier. Neil Young revisits his classic “Helpless”, off Déjà Vu, which gets the crowd going, while his rendition of the mournful “On the Beach” is one of the highlights for me, with both Stills and Young duelling it out on guitar. “Johnny’s Garden” is simply gorgeous, and though Stills’ voice is a little rough round the edges, his playing is as sweet and stellar as always. Likewise “Black Queen”, another song from his debut, where Stills really roars it out. The first CD ends with a powerful and no doubt cocaine fuelled “Almost Cut My Hair”, with Crosby in fine voice throughout.
The all acoustic “Change Partners” kicks off CD two, before a fragile yet stunning “All Along The Lee Shore”. But if Crosby’s not exactly your cup of tea, don’t worry, as there’s plenty of Neil Young to be had. A lamenting “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, “Long May You Run”, the political “Goodbye Dick”, and a banjo led rendition of “Mellow My Mind” (it sounds worse on paper than it really is). He also performs a strong “Old Man”, which is just as captivating as when he played it back in the Cellar Door days. Nash is well represented, especially on “Our House” and “Teach Your Children”, two of best his songs, while the multifaceted “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes” closes the disc, and is as every bit as exciting and energetic as when they first recorded it on their debut album.
The highlights continue on the third CD with a spacey “Déjà Vu” and “Pre-Road Downs”, although Young brings us back down to earth with “Don’t Be Denied” and the semi-dystopian “Revolution Blues”. Crosby’s “Long Time Gone” has a loose, almost free-flowing feel to it, compared to the studio original, along with Young’s extended and extremely trippy “Pushed It Over The End”, a real treat which obviously must have a few Neil heads barring up over. Not to mention their version here of “Ohio”, which may lack some of the urgency of previous live renditions, but there can be no doubting the group’s collective conviction and passion when it came to this unique musical statement, one of the greatest polemical songs ever written about the state of America in the late 1960’s.
I tell you what, box sets can be hard going, and this one in particular is no exception, especially if one is attempting to write about its contents in a single sitting (with the exception of the DVD). However I am happy to say that this is three hours or so of my life I won’t be demanding a receipt for nor claiming on my spiritual tax return for hours wasted. Because CSNY 1974 is a gift that just keeps on giving. And regardless what each member has said about the experience (Neil Young has been especially disparaging, even going so far as to say that “It was a huge disappointment. Listening back to the tapes of Wembley, it is pretty obvious that we were either too high or just no good.”), there are more than enough moments of magic to justify its existence. Though for a band who modelled themselves on the ideals of peace, love and universal happiness, CSNY were about as dysfunctional as they came. None of which matters, now some forty years later; because the music they created, based on what is presented on these four discs, is priceless, and a timeless reminder of an age when rock was about selling ideas, instead of products.