Saturday, January 10, 2015

Put the Boot In: Stephen Stills - 'It's the Ride' 1978 Bread and Roses Festival

Pulled from the ‘rock room’ vault comes from a 1978 radio broadcast of a Stephen Stills solo performance at the Bread and Roses Festival on September 4, 1978. The concert took place at the Greek Theatre over September 2-4, 1978 and Stephen Stills was a last second addition to the bill along with already performing friends Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and others.

The recording is a slightly sterile broadcast soundboard probably hailing from cassette but clear in its capture and representation of a Stills solo acoustic performance. There is a light hiss at high volume but nothing that detracts from the enjoyment of the show. The first two tracks feature a rogue tambourine that is either from a drum machine or some enterprising folks assisting Stills with a rhythm. The performance is one of Stills finest; it finds Stephen in a laid back groove, in good humor and playing a unique set list for the assembled crowd. The positivity of the performance emanates from the tape, partly due to the accepting and eager audience.

Stills greets the crowd and comments, ‘I’ve never seen so many guys do so many things so many times, over and over’, before beginning a groovy and somewhat apprehensive ‘Love the One Your With’. The loopy vibe is similar to another Stills song from the 70’s, ‘Buying Time’ ‘Love the One Your With’ gains momentum and by the last chorus Stills elongates the lines into a frozen rope falsetto and pulls the vocal rip cord unfurling his voice to the delight of the crowd.

A rare rendition of Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’ follows with Stills reconstructing the expected Bo Diddley’ beat into a striding back country campfire strum fest. Stills vocals are hiccuped accentuated and completely invested in the performance. Stills takes a few liberties’ with the lyrics, expanding the scope of the tune and injecting a signature originality to the song. A careful listen reveals a female voice adding some off stage vocal additions late in the rendition. 

The crowd responds in kind with great applause, Stills rewards them by stating that he is going to perform a  more recent song, but he cannot remember the words, so he will use a lyric sheet because he is ‘not proud’. What follows is a stunning early version of what would become the song cycle the ‘Spanish Suite’ first appearing in its entirety on 2005’s Man Alive. Here in its formative stages Stills moves through the various sections of the tune on solo acoustic. The song opens with a short guitar solo prelude before Stills voice begins to croon in a gentle Spanish to the surprise of some audience members.  Stills confidently navigates foreign musical waters, his voice surging and then retreating in dynamic grace with the warm movement of his taught acoustic strings. A special and highlight performance.

                                                       Photo: Michael Weinstock   

A quick ‘thank you’ to the crowd and Stills slips on his weather worn traveling shoes, heading to a quiet cafĂ© for a candlelight conversation comprised of Stephen’s personal idol Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’. Whispered gently like a secret, Stills lullabies’ the verses and takes a measured levitating solo break. The crowd loves this one.

With only a brief pause Stills keeps the emotional momentum at a premium. A short crisp finger picked introduction clears the vines and reveals the aged opening to ‘4+20’. Keeping with the theme of the concert this is a definitive performance. Stills decorates the circular melody with opulent detail and sings the song in a moaning broken voice representative of the troubled narrator.

Introducing the next song as ‘somebody else’s, a rare performance of the Rick Roberts (Flying Burrito Brothers and Firefall fame) song ‘Colorado’ follows. A song that Stills could obviously relate to through his connection to the Rocky Mountain state, his smoky alpine vocals drift across the current warm California landscape longing for the pine tree time of his beloved Colorado Mountains. A Stephen Stills fan will be hard pressed to find another performance of such refinement and glory.

Stills makes a few humorous comments about his teeth and ‘Rolling Stone’ before inviting a ‘Mark’ on stage to add some railroad harp to a special performance of the traditional longing of ‘Take Me Back to the Ohio Valley’.

Yet another rare track follows with a performance of ‘Jesus Gave Away Love For Free’ hailing from the 1972 Manassas LP. A  fiddle player named (Green?) joins Stills on stage for an intimate version of the rarely performed song.
What follows tops even the preceding performance with a lofty reading of the early environmentalist song ‘Fallen Eagle’ again hailing from the 1972 Manassas LP. After some on stage adjustments the song drops from a treetop. This version careens around summits and ascends through the clouds with a reckless freedom. Just Stills and the fiddle player shit kicking and taking names. The song salutes a perfectly constructed set of traditional and earthy originals played with a tender and respectful hand.

Stills moves to the piano stool for a gut bucket reading of Otis Redding’s ‘Old Man Trouble’, a song that would later become a standard in Stills live sets. This version extends past eight minutes and moves into a spoken verse section where Stephen growls a bit and really digs into it. The freedom felt by Stills in the set is illustrated though the easy going nature of these Stills piano improvs.

There are some slight tape issues that appear in this segment of tape but rectify themselves quickly. The acoustic guitar returns for what seems to me to be a premier performance of ‘Thoroughfare Gap’. Stills introduces it as a new song that he had been trying to record for ‘three years’ and that he won’t be reading the lyrics for this particular performance.  Stills moves confidently through the multiple verses, climbing toward the blue sky over deadfall and earthy decompositions on the forest floor. Stumbling only once, Stills sings his mistake away and continues in orotund voice to dictate his recently composed travel tale. Admittedly this particular performance is a ‘rock room’ favorite as well as perfectly illustrating Stills sometimes underrated songwriting prowess.
A vehement demonstration of the Stills concert classic Crossroads/Can’t Catch Me ends the second acoustic segment. Stills flaunts his superior acoustic guitar abilities through the blues/ rock standard reenactment with his hollow body. Percussive thumps, picks, stops and pulls emanate from Stills acoustic as he growls his way through the classic duo. Stills fingered acoustic guitar bass licks in ‘Can’t Catch Me’ climb the fire escape rung by rung as he raps through Chuck Berry’s original lines in one particular musical moment of note. The song segue climaxes in Stills screaming in church revival satisfaction as the crowd responds back excitedly to his blues hollers. Jammed this section a couple of times for good measure.

The conclusion of the set comes with Stills returning to the piano stool for an extended sixteen minute get down with the combination of ’49 Bye Byes/For What It’s Worth. Stills grooves playfully throughout the rendition of the concert warhorse, singing with range and careful enunciation. His always interesting piano playing gets an extended examination under the solo spotlight. At one point responding to hollers from the audience Stills replies,  ‘Listen harder’ in addition to another funny comment I’ll leave for the reader to discover. By the time Stills rolls into ‘For What It’s Worth’, many singers and musicians have joined the stage contributing joyous vocals, celebratory hand claps and a gospel flair. A collaborative vocal crescendo is reached, a tapestry of interweaving voices chanting the classic chorus with Stills coaxing the assembled voices to ascend to higher peaks. A very unique and inspiring version of a couple of Stills ‘best’ songs and rock standards.

The unique set list, stellar playing and solid soundboard quality of Stephen Stills at the Greek September 4, 1978 makes the recording essential for rock fans looking to add a Stills show to their vaults. While lacking Stills usual screaming electric guitar displays, the performance finds the acoustic Stills playing with confidence and humor with a focus on his superior vocal performance. The honest stage dialog and off the cuff celebratory nature of the song choices only increase the power of the performance. Essential listening.





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