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Concert review: Crosby, Stills & Nash at Red Butte Garden

by on August 24, 2012

I first moved to Utah when I was in high school, and Crosby, Stills & Nash were annual visitors (or at least seemed to be) at venues like ParkWest (now the Canyons), and while they packed fans in there by the tens of thousands, the legendary folk-rockers were not really on my radar as a young punk-rock kid.

20-plus years later, I appreciate the significance of the band in America’s music history, as both leaders of the ’60s protest-music scene and as songwriters with serious chops, excellent vocal harmonies and a catalog of songs that transcend eras.

That said, I entered Thursday’s sold-out show at Red Butte Garden–my first time seeing the trio–with trepidation, fully aware that the years have probably changed their collective vocal prowess, and not for the better. And that proved to be true, but the things that made Crosby, Stills & Nash legends in the first place–the songs–overcame any complaints with ease.

Splitting the show into two sets, Crosby, Stills & Nash took the state shortly after 7:30 and promptly lit into one of their best from when Neil Young was in the group, “Carry On/Questions.” Stephen Stills’ guitar solo during that first performance was one of the pleasant surprises of the night; I’d been told of his axe skills, but didn’t realize what a powerful, emotional player he can be–that more than made up for some of his rough vocals on later songs like “Southern Cross.”

Graham Nash sat at a piano for the follow-up, “Chicago,” and his voice seems to have weathered the years the best, although David Crosby was in pretty fine form all night as well. When he and Nash shared the spotlight on songs like “Lay Me Down,” those moments were some of the best of the night.

The first set was the stronger one, including fine takes on “Just a Song Before I Go,” “Marrakesh Express,” “Deja Vu” and the Buffalo Springfield song “Bluebird,” which Crosby introduced by saying “I can see at least one Buffalo Springfield shirt out there.” It probably wasn’t hard to spot, considering the majority of the audience was on its feet from the first song onward.

The second set had several highlights as well, but the energy seemed to wane a bit after the raucous first half of the show. “Helplessly Hoping” was a worthy effort, as was Stills’ cover of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” and Crosby and Nash’s version of “Guinnevere.”

The men on stage, backed by a solid band, were thankful to the crowd, but didn’t chat too much. The best line of the night probably came from Crosby about mid-way through the second set, when he noted that a lot of people consider Crosby, Stills & Nash a political band, “even though we do more love songs.”

“But one thing I will say,” Crosby continued, with the audience cheering, “is that I don’t think the people who wrote the Constitution had in mind that the people who have the biggest TV budget should have the keys to the kingdom.”

Interesting that Crosby’s line was as political as it got all night, considering Utah is a sort of adopted home of the conservative presidential nominee of the Republican Party this year–a fact no doubt known to the old radicals on stage. Perhaps they didn’t want to offend any fans at Red Butte Garden, or simply don’t like to delve too deeply into political diatribes any more.

Regardless, Crosby, Stills & Nash delivered a rock-solid show, something far better than the worst-case scenario I had imagined of old guys who could no longer sing or enrapture a crowd. The trio and their backing band had an easy go-to to avoid that possibility–again, those songs!–and the vibe was perfect for the environment they were playing. If only every band from CSN’s heyday aged as gracefully.

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