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Buffalo Springfield, Gillian Welch @ Santa Barbara Bowl 6/7/11
Photo by Kubacheck via Flickr, used by permission.
“You see how it is these days, I was with a friend of mine backstage trying to point somebody out in the audience and I said ‘Oh he’s the one with the gray hair…’” Richie Furay is cracking wise to the Santa Barbara audience, which is, frankly, made up of a healthy percentage of gray-hairs. There’s a genial chuckle through the crowd - and a wail of howling protest from stage left
“NO NO NO NO NO!,” hollers Neil Young, bolting from from the piano, running up to take his mic. “I don’t wanna hear any jokes about being old!” He doesn’t sound like he’s kidding. For the last hour, this band of sexagenarians has been whooping it up like a bunch of ambitious and rabidly competitive teenagers, and Young doesn’t want to kill the buzz by being reminded what year it is.
During its brief existence from Spring 1966 to Spring 1968, Buffalo Springfield recorded three remarkable albums, largely overlooked in their time, which have have since become part of the sixties rock canon. But they also had an electricity on stage, heard in the handful of surviving live tapes from the era, that those albums never captured. Now hitting the reunion trail after a forty-three year absence, they’re still, remarkably, better than the records they made in their early twenties. It’s that rare reunion that delivers on all its promises, gets almost everything right and a few things better.
There were many reasons to believe this would have been about on par with the shows Young and Springfield cohort Stephen Stills have done with CSNY in the last decade, in which you get to hear creaky renditions of your favorite old songs, rendered with a galumphy “well, we gave it our best shot” attitude. Those shows only occasionally came to life, usually when Young took the mic, or when he and Stills went into their one of their dependably thrilling guitar duels. But this show had an entirely different feel, tighter, closer to home and more capable of real flight.
The apparent rejuvenation of Stills is perhaps the biggest reason for this sudden uptick in quality. His vocals had been on a downward slide for most of the last decade, until the use of a new hearing aid in 2009 restored his ability to intonate himself with the rest of the band. The difference is obvious, and he held his own against his companion/ rivals for the entire night.
Furay may be the sixties-era rock singer who’s held onto his pipes the best, a testament to the power of clean living (he retired from rock in the early eighties to become a pastor, though he has recently allowed his secular music interests to resurface, with a brief Poco reunion in 2009). Early in the program came a beautifully delicate reading of “Do I Have To Come Right Out And Say It”, with Stills and Young providing ethereal harmonies underneath Furay’s perfectly tender vocals. “Kind Woman”, a touching dedication to his wife Nancy, was the night’s biggest tear-jerker.
And that brings us to Neil Young, who’s remained a pretty firey and unpredictable character even in his dotage, and who would seem to be the least likely reunion participant. More than one attempt to get the band back together has been scuttled by his last-minute cold feet, including their induction at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. But fans have come to trust that if the vibe’s not right, Neil isn’t capable of forcing it, so the fact that he’s here at all suggests something has changed. To a long time observer, he looks almost giddy, wandering around to chat with his bandmates, making repeated in-jokes involving the word “squirrel”, singing surprisingly tight harmonies, and playing guitar with genuine abandon.
He’s also responsible for a few updates to the group’s sound, bringing his signature overloaded guitar tone into tracks like “Hot Dusty Roads” and “Mr. Soul.” The band - fleshed out by the rhythm section of longtime Young associate Rick “The Bass Player” Rosas and CSNY drummer Joe Vitale - doesn’t sound like a sixties act, partly because its songs were so forward-looking they still sound modern, and partly because you so rarely hear groups of that vintage playing with such undimmed capacity.
Toward the end of the night, the guitar battles rise to epic level as the band extends “Bluebird” for a good ten minutes, Young stomping up over to get right in Stills’ face and serve up riffs, with an intensity that demands a response, and Stills taking the bait. They volley off each other, echo each other, harmonize with each other, raising and lowering the dynamic as the band watches their every move and tries to keep up. They’ll do this again in the encore, turning both “For What It’s Worth” and a WTF?-worthy “Rockin’ In The Free World” into sprawling guitar explorations.
But maybe the finest moment of the night occurs when Young steps to the mic to sing the opening lines of “Broken Arrow,” an iconic multi-part suite that’s rarely been performed live. It’s an unexpected treat, but what’s most exciting is the care with which the group treats the complex, loopy arrangement, something the original band may not have had the discipline for. It was a fitting close for the event, a metaphor for peace sung by a band that could hardly hold themselves together in their time, now finding a way to make it work. Maybe they’ve finally found their time.
The show was opened by Fairfax High alum Gillian Welch, performing acoustically with partner David Rawlings. Decked out in their best Nashville Nudie suits, the pair made for the perfect appetizer, easy on the ears but frequently compelling. Not surprisingly, their update of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” drew the biggest cheers of the night, but it was “I’ll Fly Away”, as sung by Welch with Emmylou Harris and Allison Krauss on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, that hit its mark most forcefully.