Graham Nash returned to Cleveland on Tuesday (Sept. 19) for a transcendental trip through the past that touched on all points throughout his prolific musical career.
The socially-conscious Englishman had plenty to say between ebullient acoustic tunes, particularly in light of the day’s podium pontificating at the United Nations by America’s Twitter-happy figurehead.
Politically active since the ‘60s, Nash co-founded the anti-nuke coop MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) with Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt and participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement. So wasn’t about to let a certain Commander-in-Chief’s recent saber-rattling go unchecked on his watch.
Dressed for comfort in black jeans and shirt, the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer regaled a capacity Music Box crowd with over a dozen solo gems and Crosby, Stills & Nash hits whose lyrical contents remain as topical as ever.
“I’ve never seen the political climate this crazy,” lamented Nash. “And I’ve seen some sh-t!”
“But the pendulum will swing back,” surmised the optimistic auteur / photographer. “Let’s just have fun tonight.”
Accompanied by ex-Byzantium guitarist Shane Fontayne (whose resume includes stints with Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Richard Marx), Nash was mostly in good spirits—and terrific voice—his altar boy tenor blending with Fontayne’s mid-range for some heavenly harmonies that recalled CSN’s best work.
Nash has played Cleveland a lot over the last few years, starting with a Crosby, Stills & Nash show at Jacobs Pavilion in 2012 and an exclusive Severance Hall engagement with Liza Grossman and Contemporary Youth Orchestra (CYO) in 2015. He also made a surprise visit to Parma Library to plug his autobiography (Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life) before a gig at the Hard Rock in Northfield.
Taking to a cozy-looking, candle-adorned stage whose table-clothed nightstands resembled mini ziggurats, Nash and Fontayne greeted supper club spectators with 1966 Hollies hit “Bus Stop” (We shared my umbrella) before uncorking some vintage CSN in the form of 1982 Daylight Again hit “Wasted On the Way.”
Nash said “I Used to Be a King” (from 1971’s Songs for Beginners) was his first breakup song, and reported that 1972 Crosby / Nash entry “Immigration Man” was inspired by an unfortunate confrontation at U.S. customs.
Nash—his white, wispy hair offsetting his Johnny Cash attire—offered several new songs from last year’s This Path Tonight: He devoted the soul-searching “Myself at Last” to his girlfriend, Amy. Later, he dedicated the emotionally-charged “Back Home” to Band co-founder Levon Helm (who died in 2012) and sent the haunting “Mississippi Burning” out to three civil rights workers (James, Andrew, Michael) murdered by the KKK during the “Freedom Summer” of ’64.
Graham switched guitars for every song but favored his Gibson six-string acoustics (he also played piano and harmonica). To his right, Shane shuffled between a sky-blue Fender Stratocaster and big-bodied Gretschs, seasoning the mix with twangy country licks, symphonic volume swells, and mournful string bends. On “Mississippi Burning” he employed a bouzouki-like instrument, maneuvering a slide up and down its frets for an eerie menace.
Nash said he’s grown sick of having to play “Military Madness” 45 years after writing the protest anthem, yet he encouraged the crowd to chime in on the protest tune’s no more war outro anyway. CSN hit “Marrakesh Express” sounded terrific reduced to just two guitars and voices: Fontayne capably copped mirthful Moroccan vibes and an Indian bazaar mood with his electric.
The journeyman said one of the joys of performing without “the other monkeys” was being able to do songs that get overlooked (for lack of time and set space) at CSN shows. He offered “Right Between the Eyes” by way of example, crooning while Fontayne coaxed groans from a Gretsch.
The Woodstock vet also shared some secrets behind his songwriting. Nash said some bits—like bright piano piece “Our House”—come from such “ordinary moments” as browsing an antique store with a girlfriend (Joni Mitchell).
Conversely, others derived from majestic, otherworldly moments: Save-the-Cetaceans gem “Wind on the Water” was prompted by an afternoon of whale-watching off the coast of Nicaragua on David Crosby’s yacht.
“David’s boat was eighty feet long,” said Nash. “These blues were easily a hundred.”
Other songs were borne of sillier circumstances: Nash confessed that his breezy, atmospheric 1977 single “Just a Song Before I Go” was quite literally written on the fly.
“I was visiting a friend who bet I couldn’t write a song before leaving,” smiled Nash. “Heck, he’d even given me the song title in his asking!
“I still have that $500!”
After a brief intermission (“Hey, you try doing this at 75!” joked the star) Nash dusted off 1976’s “Taken At All,” 1969’s “Lady of the Island” and the poignant new “Golden Days”—which juxtaposed Nash’s early Hollies / CSN fame with present-day concerns (mortality and meaning).
Glass of wine in hand, Nash admitted he was alarmed that 47% of registered voters failed to turn out for November’s Presidential election. He also picked a bone with the media, who flood headlines, airwaves and bandwidth with death and destruction to increase advertising revenue.
“There are 100 million great things happening every day you just don’t hear about,” observed Nash.
The duo’s recreation of “interesting” Beatles epic “A Day in the Life” was soulful and stirring. Nash claimed John Lennon and Paul McCartney blasted a badly-tripping David Crosby with the then-new Sgt. Pepper’s track over a pair of Altec 604-e speakers at Abbey Road Studios.
“If you ever wondered why Crosby’s so f-cked up, that’s why!” he laughed.
Nash also divulged some of his own youthful drug antics, too. He chronicled an acid-tinged trip to Stonehenge, walk through Winchester Cathedral, and epiphany at the grave of an 18th-century soldier that yielded the soaring CSN cut “Cathedral” before taking to his piano. On a more serious note, he said “Chicago” was written to raise defense funds for demonstrators (the “Chicago 8”) arrested at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in the Windy City.
Fontayne took lead on eloquent encore “Blackbird,” mimicking Paul McCartney’s finger-style guitar lines whilst harmonizing with Nash. Both men ripped into their guitars on the Neil Young-penned “Ohio,” whose verses condemn both Richard Nixon and the Ohio National Guard for the killing of students at Kent State University.
Grand finale “Teach Your Children” (from the 1970 album Déjà Vu) sent fans home happy, hopeful, and in renewed awe at CSN’s brilliant Brit.