By Eleni P. Austin
Stephen Stills became fascinated with music as a kid. Born in 1945, the Dallas, Texas native was playing professionally at age 15. An Army brat, he had lived all over and developed an affinity for Blues, Folk and Latin Music. He graduated high school in Costa Rica. After a stint at Louisiana State University, he ditched college and moved to New York, intent on a career in music.
It was the early ‘60s and the Folk scene in New York City was thriving. He signed on as a guitar player for The Au Go-Go Singers. He immediately befriended bandmate Richie Furay. Following a Canadian tour (where the Au Go-Go’s shared a bill with The Squires, which featured Neil Young), Stephen quit the band and relocated to Los Angeles.
The West Coast was quickly becoming the epicenter of the music business. The Sunset Strip became a haven for clubs like The Whisky A Go-Go, Ciro’s, Hullabaloo, Bido Lito’s The Trip and Pandora’s Box and began showcasing up-and-coming Rock bands. The Byrds, who were the first band to marry Rock & Roll r and Folky harmonies, calling their hybrid Folk Rock, scored a residency at Ciro’s. Meanwhile, Love made their debut at Bido Lito’s and The Doors got their start at The Whisky. Stephen began playing recording sessions and even auditioned for The Monkees television series. But everything fell into place when he reconnected with Richie Furay and Neil Young and recruited Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin, becoming The Herd. By the time they changed their name to Buffalo Springfield, they were gigging up and down The Strip, cultivating a local following. They signed a deal with Atlantic Records and their eponymous debut arrived in 1966. A stand-out track, “For What It’s Worth,” was written by Stephen in response to the Sunset Strip curfew riots that happened a few months earlier. The song shot up the charts, peaking at #7.
The band recorded two more albums, Buffalo Springfield Again and The Last Time Around, but quickly discovered that five healthy egos had trouble co-existing in one band. They called it quits in 1968. At loose ends, Stephen recorded Super Session with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. By late 1968, he had joined forces with former Byrds provocateur David Crosby and Graham Nash, who was technically still part of the British Invasion band, The Hollies.
As Crosby, Stills & Nash, their self-titled debut arrived in the summer of 1969 and quickly ascended the charts. Between the trio’s effortless harmonies, Stephen’s protean musicianship and astonishing songs like “Guinevere,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Marrakesh Express” they attained superstar status on the strength of that one album. A few months later, Neil Young joined the line-up, and the four-piece released the equally impressive Déjà vu in 1970.
For the next 40-odd years, Stephen would toggle between Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but he still found plenty of time to nurture a solo career. 1970 saw the release of his self-titled debut, and nine more solo albums have dotted the decades. He’s also collaborated with ex-Byrd/Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman in Manassas, with Neil Young as The Stills-Young Band, with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Barry Goldberg as The Rides and with former paramour, Judy Collins as Stills & Collins. Recently Stephen recently unearthed old tapes from two live shows, recorded over two nights at the Berkeley Community Theater in August 1971, a few months after the release of his sophomore solo effort, Stephen Stills 2.
The album kicks into gear with a crackling version of his first solo hit, “Love The One Your With.” Driving acoustic guitars partner with slinky bass, crushed velvet keys and a percolating conga-beat. Lyrics like “If you’re down and confused, and you don’t remember who you’re talking to, concentration slip away, because your baby is so far away/Well, there’s a rose in a fisted glove, and the Eagle flies with the Dove, and if you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with,” split difference between the peace, love and happiness vibe of The Youngbloods’ “Get Together” and Janis Joplin’s carnal carpe diem, “Get It While You Can.”
With his second solo effort climbing the charts (ultimately reaching #5), it’s no surprise that Stephen cherry-picks several tracks from the new album. The arrangement of “Sugar Babe” walks a fine line between tender and dissonant. Lyrics continue the theme of loving the one you’re with and includes easy-to-follow instructions; “Let yourself be open honey, learn to bend, remember everyone gets scared, but I’m still your best friend, when you forget about yourself and think of things to do to make me happy then you love me girl like I love you.”
The socially conscious “Word Game” (sadly) still resonates today (um, hello Cameron Sexton and the Tennessee legislature). Spiky guitars and an insistent backbeat match Stephen’s agitated invective, as he calls out bigotry and the divide between the haves and the have-nots; “It’s incredibly sick you can feel it as across the land it flows, prejudice is slick when it’s a word game, it festers and it grows, move along quick it furthers one to have somewhere to go/you can feel it as it’s rumblin’ let emotions keep a’tumblin,’ then as cities start to crumblin’ mostly bellies grumblin’ here we go.”
Despite the sprightly, backwoods banjo intro, “Know You Got To Run” is a brooding Rocker. Knotty banjo licks wrap around lyrics share some hard truths with a troubled friend; “And you got yourself a potion, for you to keep you from your sleep, In the dark and lonely hour, I heard you laugh and weep/You’ll always be runnin’ until you find your doom, never face your lonely soul, never face the gloom.”
Along with the opener, “Love The One You’re With,” two more tracks from his solo debut dot the record. “Black Queen” is barbed and fractious, just Stephen and coruscated guitars, as lyrics detail a sinister card game. Meanwhile, “Do For Others” puts the spotlight on the fraternal harmonies and fleet fretwork between Stephen and guitarist Steve Fromholz.
Hoping to emulate heroes like Ray Charles, and create his own Rock & Roll Review, Stephen’s band, which included guitarist Steve Fromholz, bassist Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels, drummer Dallas Taylor, as well as Didney George on alto sax and flute, Paul Harris on organ and Joe Lala on congas and percussion, was augmented by The Memphis Horns. The five-piece really make their mark on three songs. “Bluebird Revisited” is a rollicking, hell-for-leather ride. Stephen recasts his Folk-flavored Buffalo Springfield favorite, “Bluebird.” Syncopated horns collide with hard-charging guitars, sinewy bass, spiraling keys and a propulsive backbeat on this Soulful shapeshifter. On the break, a skittery trumpet hopscotches through the mix, underscored by incendiary guitars.
“Lean On Me,” co-written by Memphis Horn Wayne Jackson (not the Bill Withers hit), is a kinetic blend of fuzzy guitars, driving horns, brawny bass, shadowy organ and a conga kick. But the real stand-out is the Afro-Cubangroover, “Cherokee.” The lyrics find Stephen mourning his doomed romance with Rita Coolidge; “My fortunes means nothing, I never cared about fame, the dark-eyed Cherokee, like the Raven, she knows me.” Feathery flute darts across a sonic soundscape that includes stinging guitars, serpentine horns, plush keys and the tandem time-keeping of bass, drums and conga. A dexterous sax solo unfurls on the break. It’s a Funkified workout that is expansive but never onanistic.
The show’s best songs land all in a row, deftly predicting the future and honoring the (recent) past. “Jesus Gave Love Away For Free” wouldn’t appear on vinyl for another year, finding a home on Manassas, Stephen’s new collaboration with Chris Hillman. Part back porch ramble, part Folky roundelay, rippling acoustic arpeggios dovetail with stacked harmonies and lyrics that once again obsess on his failed relationship with Rita; “If you’re travelin’ out west and see a dark haired girl, tell her love is a’waitin’ in the Rockies so near and the mountains so high, as his love, it is strong, it’s a fine place to be, by his side is where she belongs….and remember that Jesus gave love away for free.”
The next pair of songs feature guest vocals from David Crosby, the “C” of CSNY. They offer up a tight take on “You Don’t Have To Cry,” from Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1969 debut. Their effortless harmonies coalesce over cascading guitars. Even more sublime is “The Lee Shore,” a Crosby composition that recently appeared on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s live set, 4 Way Street. Although it’s Stephen’s stage, it’s David who commands the spotlight on this gorgeous ode to sailing: “When I awoke this morning, dove beneath my floating home, down below her graceful her graceful side, in the turning tide to watch the sea fish roam.” Liquid guitar licks ebb and flow as Croz takes the lead and their ethereal harmonies intertwine on the chorus. The finger-picked fretwork on the break is simply breathtaking. Made all the more touching as this release arrives on the heels of David Crosby’s recent passing.
The only misstep here is a rushed and slipshod mash-up of “49 Bye-Byes” and “For What It’s Worth.” The former, a Crosby, Stills & Nash cut that seemed to bookend “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” as a magnanimous kiss-off. The latter, his first big hit with Buffalo Springfield and a genuine protest song that lamented the generational disconnect between Hippies and the Establishment. Here, it’s truncated medley, ultimately, the listener is left feeling short-changed. The album closes with band-intros and an epic take on “The Ecology Song.”
More than just a souvenir from a pair of concerts that happened half a century ago, Live At Berkeley 1971 offers a vibrant set of songs that are by turns political, personal and poignant. It also confirms that Stephen Stills music has stood the test of time.