Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "4 Way Street"

I posted this review a little while ago on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: This is one of the strongest live albums of the 1970s.

Somewhere along the way, live albums went out of vogue. Yes, bands still make them. But these days, they rarely crack the charts. In the seventies, that wasn't the case. It was an era of album rock, when radio stations didn't only focus on singles, and live LPs were often just as popular as albums put together in a recording studio. And Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's 4 Way Street was one of the best live albums of the decade. Recorded during a North American tour in support of their chart-topping studio album Deja Vu, this album found the supergroup at the height of their powers musically, even as various personality clashes between the band members steered them towards their inevitable first breakup.

4 Way Street was released in 1971 as a double album, with the first record focused on acoustic and the second focused on electric performances. The second one has its moments -- it features a pretty smoking hot performance of Neil Young's classic "Southern Man", and an equally impressive (if shorter) performance of "Ohio", another Young song, written in protest of the 1970 National Guard shootings of four student protesters at Kent State University. But it's the first record that contains the most exotic and most gratifying material.

The album opens with an unusual choice -- the tracklist lists the first number as "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", the song that launched the band into national prominence when they first performed it at the Woodstock Music Festival. But it lies. All you actually get is the last 30 seconds or so of that song, the instantly recognizable vocal harmonies that mark its ending. What comes next is two songs by the full band: a decent but lesser-known Neil Young song called "On the Way Home", and an excellent rendition of one of CSNY's best-loved numbers, "Teach Your Children". This is followed by a surprising decision -- the whole rest of first record is made up of solo material from each of the four members, sometimes performed individually, sometimes by two or more of the members, beginning with a pair of songs by David Crosby. This is followed by two songs apiece from Graham Nash, Neil Young and Stephen Stills.

Most listeners will probably focus on the two Neil Young songs, and they are worth focusing on. His best one is "Cowgirl in the Sand", originally released on the 1969 solo album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. But "Don't Let It Bring You Down", from his 1970 effort After the Goldrush, is pretty terrific too. 

For me, though, the highlight of the album comes from David Crosby. He begins his brief set with "Triad", a song about a three-person love triangle he originally wrote while still a member of The Byrds. He then follows that with a stark and exquisite number called "The Lee Shore". For years I thought that this must be a song about an actual place named The Lee Shore, and Crosby makes it sound breathtaking: "All along the the lee shore, shells lie scattered in the sand/Winking up like shining eyes at me, from the sea". Actually, it turns out that a "lee shore" is a shore that is to the lee side of a ship, which means that the wind is blowing towards the shoreline. No matter. With just a sparse acoustic guitar, Crosby's vocals, and some of the most beautiful harmonies ever sung courtesy of Graham Nash, Crosby paints a picture of an unforgettable tropical paradise, singing in character as a wizened old man of the sea. "From here to Venezuela/There's nothing more to see/Than a hundred thousand islands/Flung like jewels upon the sea/For you and me." More than forty-five years after the original release of this album, the song can still give me chills.

As for the Nash and Stills songs, they're also pretty good. Nash's best number is "Chicago", a protest song written about the 1968 Democratic Convention: "Though your brother's bound and gagged/And they've chained him to a chair/Won't you please come to Chicago just to sing". As for Stills, some will no doubt advocate for his "49 Bye Byes/America's Children" medley, which contains a reworked version of his Buffalo Springfield hit "For What It's Worth". But I much prefer the raw energy and simple sentiments of "Love the One You're With", which sounds like it has most of the band (except, possibly Neil Young) playing on it. 

The electric record is OK, but let's face it -- nobody came to see Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to hear them rock out on electric guitar. The band's strengths were always in their often-folky songwriting, and in their vocal harmonies. And, in fact, one of the album's other high points happens at the very end of the second record, when the band goes back to a soft acoustic guitar for a live version of "Find the Cost of Freedom", which ends with a quiet but stunning a capella verse sung in 4-part harmony. It's classic CSNY.

As best I can tell, 4 Way Street is something of a forgotten album today. I'm hoping that in its own modest way, this review can change that, at least a little. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in their prime brought together the best of sixties folk music with seventies rock. This album does a great job of capturing what they were like as a live act while they were still at the peak of creative powers. It's an album that deserves to be rediscovered.

Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars