Let me start by wishing everyone out there a belated Happy May Day! If you celebrated in the spirit of the United States’ similar holiday, Labor Day, I salute all of you International Workers out there. If you’re into that whole select a May Queen like Robert Plant, and dance around the Maypole, remember all Pagans are welcome here at B&V. It would appear that Spring has indeed finally sprung. It appears this year that not only Spring is in the air but live music. On the heels of the great new live disc from the Who, The Who With Orchestra – Live At Wembley, and Pink Floyd’s archival live release in celebration of Dark Side of The Moon turning 50, Stephen Stills has dug into his vault and put out a recording made during the early days of his solo career, Live At Berkeley 1971. At the very least you’d think this was an important historical document. 1971 was a critical time in Stills’ solo career.
I’ve always dug Stephen Stills but it seems he’s always been slightly overshadowed by his friend and erstwhile bandmate Neil Young. Stills has written some great songs and the guy can play anything. He’s been in some landmark bands: The Buffalo Springfield (with Neil Young and Richie Furay), he was a part of the Al Kooper/Michael Bloomfield’s landmark album Super Sessions (Stills played with Kooper on side 2 after Bloomfield split), and was a founding member of Crosby, Stills, Nash (and sometimes Young). The man was a pioneer in the realm of country rock. The critics have always despised Stills and I’m not sure why? Robert Christgau, the famous critic, wrote of Stephen, “Stills is of course detestable, the ultimate rich hippie–arrogant, self-pitying, sexist, shallow.” Jeez dude, why not go ahead and call his mom ugly? It has always seemed to me that Stills has had a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Maybe all that critical bile has made him defensive. He was famously kicked out of Keith Richards’ hotel room when he refused to share his coke. While the man has been inconsistent in his career, so has Neil Young? I’ll admit he can come across condescending and preachy sometimes, but hey man, it was the 70s.
Stills tour in 1971 was in support of his second solo album creatively named Stephen Stills 2. At least he didn’t use Roman numerals… It was his first solo tour and was confined to the U.S. He actually played at venerable Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City on the tour in July of ’71. And no, I wasn’t there. I was barely in grade school. Social services would have seized me if my parents took me to the show. By 1971 I think it’s safe to guess Stills was thinking, what a difference a year makes. In 1970, after the triumph of Deja Vu, Crosby, Stills Nash & Young finally imploded amongst band bickering and infighting. He lost his girl, Rita Coolidge, to Graham Nash which accelerated the band split. I heard he didn’t handle that well and had accidentally OD’d on pills and later got busted for possession but I’m not sure about either of those things. Further, 1970 saw each member of CSNY put out a solo LP: If I Could Only Remember My Name (Crosby), Stephen Stills, After The Gold Rush (Neil Young), and finally Songs For Beginners (Graham Nash) which were each a hit and probably further spelled the end of CSNY. I’ve chronicled our favorite solo/duo LPs from CSN before and all of those LPs made the cut. Stills’ eponymous solo debut reached number 2 on the album charts (Behind George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass) and boasted the big hit “Love The One You’re With.” That song was huge – Aretha Franklin, The Supremes and the Isley Brothers all did versions of that song. It may be derided for slightly sexist sentiment but it’s interesting how many woman have recorded that song… Stills’ debut is the only album to boast appearances from Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.
Then came 1971 and Stills recorded his second solo album, the aforementioned Stephen Stills 2. It got mixed reviews. It still peaked at number 8 on the charts. But the two singles, “Change Partners,” clearly about Rita Coolidge, and “Marianne” both peaked in the low 40s. Critics were lukewarm, at best, about the album but I think it’s got some great songs. When Stills launched his first solo tour in support of 2 – he’d been promising a big show when he finally toured solo – he brought along the Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson, Roger Hopps, Jack Hale, Andrew Love, Sidney George, Floyd Newman). Stills had become enamored with bands like Chicago (Hendrix liked original guitarist Terry Kath) and Blood Sweat And Tears who utilized a big horn sound. Blood Sweat And Tears was founded by Al Kooper, his album mate from the Kooper/Bloomfield/Stills Super Session. Maybe that influenced him. I’m not a huge fan of a big horn section but I’ll admit sometimes it just works. Springsteen’s latest tour in 2023 boasted a big horn section and I loved the show I saw in February. The tour was dubbed “The Memphis Horns Tour” and alternately the “Drunken Horns Tour” as Stills was drinking heavily due to the Rita Coolidge thing. He was not in a good place. I’ve been there… haven’t we all?
For the 1971 tour, from which Live At Berkeley 1971 is the first released music, Stills brought along Steven Fromholtz (guitar), Paul Harris (keyboards), CSNY’s rhythm section Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels (bass) and Dallas Taylor (drums), and percussionist Joe Lala. The first half of the album, like the tour it came from, is an acoustic set from Stills. The band joins later. These 50+ year old recordings sound fantastic. The live LP opens with “Love The One You’re With,” with just Stills on vocals/acoustic guitar with percussionist Joe Lala joining in to bring that Latin soul flavor. It’s a great start. From there it’s another track from his solo debut, “Do For The Others” written for David Crosby’s late girlfriend who had died in a car wreck. The third track was at the time unreleased, “Jesus Gave Love Away For Free” which ended up on the first Manassas record. Steven Fromholz joins Stills on guitar and vocals on that one… Stills met former Byrd Chris Hillman on the tour and they formed Manassas… but I digress. Stills had written enough material for a double LP but Ahmet Ertegun talked him into a single disc. A lot of what was leftover ended up on the critically lauded first Manassas album.
At that point, to surprise the crowd, David Crosby joins Stills on stage. Stills and Crosby were closer friends than people realize. The two songs they performed together carry a bit more poignancy for me as Croz sadly just passed away this year. They do a great versions of “You Don’t Have To Cry” and Crosby’s “The Lee Shore.” Stills has said Crosby was the first of his ex bandmates to show up for one of his solo shows. Stills does quite a few CSN songs but only touches on his Buffalo Springfield career which is baffling to me. He finally then launches into two tracks from Stills 2, the great track “Word Game” inspired by Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma” and the bluesy “Sugar Babe” where Stills switches to the piano. I really like both of these performances, perhaps better than their studio versions.
From there Stills, still at the piano, does a mash up of CSN’s “49 Bye Byes” with the Buffalo Springfield classic “For What It’s Worth” (the greatest protest song, ever). It’s very similar to the version of the song on CSNY’s live album, Four Way Street. I don’t know why Stills always played these songs together on piano versus doing a straight version of “For What It’s Worth” on it’s own. It’s one of his best tunes and he just kind of tosses it off. Stevie Nicks recently did a very nice version of “For What It’s Worth.” From there he plays the wicked acoustic blues tune “Black Queen” from his debut. I do so love rockers playing blues. “You Know You’ve Got To Run” which was written for Deja Vu, is the final of track of the acoustic part of the show. I have to tell you, I love the entire acoustic set.
The Memphis Horns come out for a rousing version of “Bluebird Revisited.” It’s a continuation of a tune written and performed for the Springfield, “Bluebird.” I have to admit it’s baffling to me that Stills would play the “Revisited” version instead of just “Bluebird” which is another of his greatest tracks. He left “Change Partners” and “Marianne” off this set of songs which I find equally confusing. I’m sure he had to have played those songs on the tour, why not include them? All of that said, I don’t find the horns cheesy. The Memphis Horns are pros. They’re equally jazzy on the cover song “Lean On Me,” which is not the Bill Withers song. I will say Stills sounds particularly unhinged in his singing on this track. And the horns get all kinds of playing time. To me the best use of the horns is on “Cherokee” another highlight from Stills’ debut album. After the band intro’s, the band launches into Stills’ “Ecology Song.” I think his heart was in the right place, but this song was reviled by critics and fans alike at the time. It’s just so over the top which I guess makes it a good concert ender.
I really like this concert document. As you can tell from my earlier comments I am a little confused by Stills’ choice of songs to include here. I would have liked to hear even more of his electric guitar playing – the guy is exceptional on electric – but it’s like he doesn’t want to be seen as a guitar hero. However, from what I’ve read about Stills’ first solo tour this live album captures the spirit and intent of that tour pretty well. I think it’s a great live album, certainly better than Stephen Stills Live from 1974’s tour (which I like) but like the man himself it’s very flawed. For a man reeling from the loss of his band, the loss of his girl, it’s a pretty kick ass live document. And let’s remember, Stills may not get the respect of some of his peers, but he is an excellent and important rock n roll artist.
Enjoy this one loud! Get back to that early 70s ethos of loving the one you’re with and cherishing the ecology… maybe hang out with Rita Coolidge… Cheers!