I, at least, don’t go to a Stephen Stills show for the singing – at least it isn’t high on my list of priorities. When I see Stills, it’s first for his guitar playing, and second for his songs. Singing, which to me has never been his strong suit, comes in third.
That said, Saturday night’s two-and-a-half hour (plus intermission) performance at the 1,600-seat Granada Theater in Santa Barbara lived up to my hopes. It even supplied a fourth priority: showmanship. That, Saturday night, placed between “guitar” and “songs.”
With a few exceptions (surprisingly, maybe, in his upper and lower register), Stills seemingly approximated more vocal notes than he actually hit.
The old folkie in Stills made a strong appearance as he chatted with the audience between songs: cracking jokes, telling stories, making political comments and even imitating the speaking (!) voices of Tony Bennett and Fred Neil. In addition of the songs probably expected of him – he opened with, “Change Partners” and “Helplessly Hoping” and closed with “Bluebird” and “For What It’s Worth” – he tossed numbers from his Greenwich Village contemporaries Neil (“Everybody’s Talkin’,” Tim Hardin (“Reason to Believe”) and Bob Dylan (“Girl from the North Country”). He also performed songs identified with Graham Nash and – maybe the most powerful performance of the evening – Neil Young’s “Rocking in the Free World.”
Explaining the number of other people’s songs in his set, Stills explained that he’d been listening a lot to the upcoming Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young box set, and that “I’m sick of ‘me’.”
(Incidentally: I’m all in favor of acts doing outside material — they can often tell you more about the performer than his or her own songs do).
Highlight among his own songs were a relatively rocking version of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and, from the album he did with the band Manassas, “Johnny’s Garden,” preceded by a funny reminiscence of his long-ago residence in the UK.
While far from lazy, the energy level of most of the show was varying degrees of “relaxed,” with this version of “Bluebird” downright flaccid in comparison to the Buffalo Springfield original.
Backing was by a strong quartet of Todd Caldwell on organ, bassist Kevin McCormick, former Wallflowers drummer Mario Calire, and Stills’ young son on percussion. Mid-set, a cake was brought out to commemorate Caldwell’s birthday. David Crosby, who lives in the general area of Santa Barbara, showed up early in the show to duet on “You Don’t Have to Cry.” Caldwell was the only other soloist, and Stills played a lot of guitar.
From the look of it, the average age of the near-capacity audience was north of sixty; still young enough to rise from their seats several times during the show and greet “Love the One You’re With” as though they — and Stills — were still in their twenties.