Thursday, March 12, 2020

Rock Room on the Road: Graham Nash – Live at Ithaca State Theater March 7, 2020 ‘I Can See My Life Before Me’


On Saturday March 7, 2020 Graham Nash stopped into the historic State Theater in Ithaca, NY for his Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories 2020 tour. Joined by longtime musical companion Shane Fontayne on guitar and vocals and former ‘CSN’ organist/vocalist Todd Caldwell, Nash put together an airy and diverse trio to play a cross-section of his music hailing from the ‘Hollies’, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, ‘CSNY’ and his solo career. Just a ‘rock room’ observation, I feel Nash emanated a vibe of seriousness throughout the evening, and maybe even a hint of sadness. I will not pretend to act that this is fact, but in my mind his stature only increased the poignancy of the performance.

The 1,600 seat State Theater was about ¾ capacity when the performance started promptly at 8:00 PM. I sat third row stage left and had a wonderful cross stage view of the proceedings. Regardless of current world events, the show must go on and Nash gave myself and the assembled crowd a couple hours to not think about the chaos surrounding us. Nash was in amazing voice on this evening. I have seen Nash over 30 times in multiple configurations since the early 1990’s and honestly I can say that he has never sounded better. My expectations were greatly surpassed but I was not surprised. The concert was comprised of two sets, infusing a multifarious collection of favorites, deep cuts and surprises.

Nash begin the evening on his beautiful Martin acoustic with his composition ‘Wasted on the Way’, a ‘Crosby Stills and Nash single’ from 1982 and a top ten hit for the band. Lyrically fitting for the start of the evening as the song disseminates the realization that Nash and his musical friends have/had wasted so much time on petty jealousies and meaningless fodder as opposed to concentrating on the things that really matter.

Following comes the first ‘deep’ cut of the evening, ‘King Midas in Reverse’, a 1967 single by the ‘Hollies’ which didn’t do much, yet for Nash’s fans is a well-loved cut. I was especially excited as Nash had been playing ‘Bus Stop’ in the slot currently but changed it up on this evening. Lucky us! Nash soared on the choruses with his duo of musicians providing buttery harmonies. The band created a pale paisley of sound with Caldwell laying lush brush strokes of color under the drumless sway. Fontayne was and is a stellar musician throughout the night, adding perfectly placed dabs of melody and sonic displacement under Nash’s rhythmic strums.
Before I could take a breath, ‘I Used to Be a King’ from Nash’s 1971 LP Songs For Beginners came next. Here Fontayne resurrected Jerry Garcia’s silvery pedal steel from the studio recording with illuminating riffing the crystallized in the still State Theater air. Nash with eyes closed reached for the top rungs of the chorus and hit them with light fingertips. The crowd, even those unfamiliar with the song sat in amazed silence.
Graham had no qualms about stating his mind throughout the evening, even dropping a few ‘F bombs’ to get his point across. Prior to another Songs from Beginners track ‘Chicago’ Graham told the story of how he was inspired to write the song in addition to mentioning that no one should be ‘fucking’ surprised that he will be discussing the current political climate throughout the performance. Nash said that if you have ever been to a CSNY show you should know what to expect. Nash then sat at the center stage piano and pounded the black and white keys into the stomping intro to ‘Chicago (We Can Change the World)’. Graham dug into this cut with a fierce determination, even adding our current President’s name to some of the lyrics, illustrating the song’s 50 year relevance. Members of the audience rose to their feet at the songs conclusion realizing the songs importance even in current times.

After the thrilling opening to set one, Nash thumbed through his back catalog to play a deeper cut from his impressive discography. Nash preceded ‘Carried Away’, from the 1977 CSN LP with a tale regarding his lust for an island woman who was already on her way to somewhere else with her ‘old man’. Still at piano, Nash played an introspective version of the cut that pimpled my skin and watered my eyes. The melody initiated images, while Nash’s voice brought out emotions in me that didn’t exist prior to the song. A performer at his finest.

‘Sleep Song’, ‘4 + 20’, ‘Military Madness’ come next in the set. ‘4+20’ was a surprise seeing Graham play a song that one of his music water brothers composed. Similarly to the evening thus far Nash stamped the song with his own floating tenor and made the cut a highlight of his own. ‘Military Madness’ received the torch from ‘Chicago’ and was played with a gruff ambition while again name checking a certain person in power. The crowd loved it and the song was spotlighted by Fontayne’s sonic expressions.

In my mind I hoped that the penultimate performance of the set, the Crosby/ Nash song ‘Wind on the Water’ from their LP of the same name was added as an olive branch to David Crosby. I know this was not the case, but nonetheless I let the song for the world's whales wash over me, an ocean tide of prismatic melody, buoyed by Nash’s piano and decorated with ocean calls and salty foam by the apt duo of Fontayne and Caldwell. I must not neglect to mention Fontayne and Caldwell’s wonderful additions vocally to songs that are not easy to sing harmonies on. I not once caught myself hoping for other voices, each cut was rendered with vocal care and ability.
Closing set one, was not a deep cut, but was a surprise. The trio finished with the Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’. For sure not the song I was expecting this trio to cover, but similarly to the rest of the evening they did a masterful job. Nash’s voice a hand in glove fit for the song, the groups contrary sparse arrangement fitting, and the song's peaks reached with a swirling dervish of sound between guitar and organ. A standing ovation initiated and a 20 minute break before set two.

Nash and his friends returned to the darkened stage after a brief break opening the final set with perhaps his most well-known song, ‘Marrakesh Express’. This opening ‘CSN’ song got some ladies dancing in the isles and got attendees going immediately. Nash stayed on guitar and followed the 1-2 punch with perhaps his most famous solo cut, ‘Immigration Man’. This song also chilling for its contextual relevance even 50 years after its genesis. The trio definitely raised the temperature in the venue and I could feel that set two was going to be filled with the ‘heavy hitters’.

Graham returned to the piano and strapped on his harmonica for a barren and truthful, ‘Simple Man’. He introduced the song stating that he wrote the song for Joni and premiered the tune at the Fillmore East in 1970 with Joni Mitchell sitting in the audience. A picture perfect rendition and a version that I feel lucky to have witnessed. As an aside, I met Graham in 1997 and requested ‘Simple Man’ prior to a Syracuse, NY show which he kindly played for me that evening. Memories.

Similarly to the first set, Nash injected a duo of deep cuts as he returned to his acoustic at center stage.  The first, ‘Right between the Eyes’ made its only appearance on the ‘CSNY’ live LP Four Way Street. Nash was quoted as saying to Rolling Stone, “I was seduced by a beautiful woman down in Long Island. She was married. The song is a confession to a friend”. At the State Theatre, Nash added that the song was written for John Sebastian, so some contextual dots were connected. Using the same musical configuration, the band also dug out ‘Taken At All’ from the 1976 Crosby/Nash album. Another stand out performance Nash swayed, and grimaced as he finger picked his way through the changes. Fontayne brought a smile to Nash’s face with many of his deft string swells. Three part harmonies were as tight as family and Nash seemed pleased with what transpired on stage.

The only disappointment that I felt during the whole show came after the trio played ‘Golden Days’ from Nash’s most recent album This Path Tonight. Nash’s current writing has been so strong I would have liked to see this LP explored more thoroughly, but it’s a minor gripe. Regardless, this was a stunning performance, with Nash standing without instrument at the mic, and additional towering harmonies supported by the delicate music box melody.

The harmonies remained a focus as the three musicians gathered around one microphone for the final verses of Nash’s ‘Wounded Bird’, again from his 1971 LP Songs for Beginners. Nash strummed his Martin, his head tilted back, singing each verse better than the previous. As the song concluded Nash mouthed ‘Thank you’ and smiled aware of the amazing version just played.

Following this absolutely dizzying array of songs and stories covering Nash’s fifty plus years of performing, Nash and friends prepared to knock the rest of the set out of the theater. Beginning with another Stephen Stills cover, Nash began to strum the undulating riff of ‘Love the One You With’. Kicking off the home stretch with a huge singalong love fest, Nash received assistance from Caldwell’s slippery B3 and got the theater to shake their buns and scream out the choruses.

Then in rapid fire succession, out come the ‘big guns’, “Just a Song before I Go’, ‘Cathedral’ and the expected and hoped for ‘Our House’. Peaking musically and aesthetically, the crowd grooves, Nash and company bang out the hits and there are smiles abound. Even ‘Our House’ took on a deep poignancy when combined with all of the emotions Nash stirred up over the course of the evening. The crown responded expectantly and excitedly as Nash took his bow for a close to set two.

Returning to the stage for an encore, Nash dug into his childhood for a surprising reading of Buddy Holly’s ‘Everyday’. Again, joined by Fontayne and Caldwell at the microphone in three part, a tender and harmonious cover of ‘Everyday’ seemed to sum up the entire evening. Love, friendship, rock and roll, politics, loss, hope…….it all seemed to coalesce into a song that obviously had a huge bearing on what Graham Nash decided to do with his life. Then, just when you think the show was over, the ringing introductory D chord of ‘Teach Your Children’ concluded the evening with words we should and could all take to heart. The crowd smiled with Nash, while singing a song he has performed thousands of times prior, while still taking on a powerful relevance for all involved.

The best music is ageless and one thing of many that I took away from Graham Nash’s performance at State Theater Ithaca, is that his compositions are timeless. It may seem obvious, but when a listener is able to relate on such a profound level to an artist who has lived such a different life it can elevate both performer and attendee. Nash has always been quietly making amazing music just out of the shadow of his three former band mates. His songs have provided foundational melodies that everyone remembers even if they don’t know how. His gifts were and continue to be an essential element in every artistic endeavor he has undertaken Thank you for the songs Graham Nash.


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