March 7, 2010
Four years ago, Stephen Stills brought a shambling, messy solo show
to the Michigan Theater, which did more to showcase his weaknesses as
a performer than his gifts as a first-rate songwriter and bona-fide
On Saturday, backed by a three-piece band, Stills went a long way
toward redeeming himself, muscling his way through a 90-minute show
that was heavy on hits, lost gems and even some surprise covers.
It wasn't a perfect show. At 65, Stills' always sandy growl has
devolved into a rasp that changes the timbre of his quieter songs.
And an extended solo-acoustic set that included inexplicable covers
of Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country" and Tim Hardin's "Reason
To Believe" occasionally took on the air of a not-so-good open-mic
session, in spite of the inclusion of a stellar version of "Treetop
Flyers," one of the singer's legitimate lost classics.
But by the time the band which included Hammond organ, drums and
bass returned, Stills was back on track, laying waste to the
anti-war "Cost of Freedom," and the CSN standard, "Southern Cross,"
which brought a close to the show's first half.
And when Stills and his band returned, his fire was still burning.
Often overshadowed on guitar by his occasional bandmate Neil Young
(to whom Stills tipped his hat with a raspy reading of "Long May You
Run"), the guitarist remained plugged in and showed why he rose to
No. 28 on Rolling Stone's Top 100 Guitarists poll. At turns bluesy,
countrified and just-plain rocked out on a series of Fender
Stratocasters and a gorgeous Gretsch hollow body, Stills was on fire,
playing complex, intricate leads on tunes like "Make Love to You,"
"Isn't it About Time," and "Bluebird." The electric songs masked the
deterioration of his singing voices and, at times, he almost seemed
to be having fun, although a workmanlike vibe pervaded most of his set.
Meanwhile, a cover of Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" was pointless,
amounting essentially to an overly showy riff display that served
neither the song nor Stills' legacy as a player.
A set-closing reworking of the CSN staple "Woodstock" provided some
redemption, thanks to a fresh arrangement and solid harmony vocals
from his bandmates. But a rote reading the mandatory "For What It's
Worth," which constituted the show's single encore, only served as a
reminder that, in spite of more than a few high points, Stills spent
much of his evening playing by numbers.