By Mark Guarino
When Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reunited in 2000, the reason was obvious: A new album needed promoting.
Yet at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre Sunday, the group once again was in reunion mode but had nothing new to sell. Strangely — and this defies the laws of rock ‘n’ roll commerce — this made the Vietnam era veterans sound more purposeful and renewed.
So what gives? Another unpopular war, of course.
This tour — titled “Freedom of Speech” — had a clearly defined mission and it wasn’t nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. The 34 songs David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young culled into a nearly three-hour show were protests, the only thing different was the war. The outrage in songs ranging from “Wooden Ships” to “Ohio” was transferred from the time in which they were written to today. Aided by visuals, which included footage of the caskets of dead soldiers, their presentation focused on empathy. On “Find the Cost of Freedom,” thumbnail photographs of fallen U.S. soldiers were projected along with a running tally of the dead (as of Sunday: 2,632). The continuing message throughout the night was that these are the faces that the current White House does not want you to see.
Even with the Bush administration under the most scrutiny of its lifetime, not many younger bands have been so bold as to stage an entire tour like this one. One likely reason is that no band has such a readymade songbook to pull from. Yet these were not performed as rehashes. “Military madness is killing your country,” Nash sang, a gentle lament until Young turned to Stills and injected a jolt of guitar dissonance that turned the sentiment into a violent confrontation, difficult to dismiss.
With such pointed moments like that, it was jarring when the momentum went stillborn to allow for respective career highlights from each singer that included sentimental tripe (most of Nash’s contributions including “Milky Way Tonight” and “Our House”), blustery blues hysteria (Stills’ “Roger and Out”) and folksy pretension (Nash and Crosby alone with “Guinnevere”). Unlike the more political anthems, these felt corroded by time.
The only new tunes of the night came from Young who, during his turn, selected songs from a new album: “Living With War” (Reprise), his recent album of protest music he hastily recorded earlier this year. Despite some clunky lyrics, the new songs had an undeniable relevancy and were played with passion. Played solo with just bass and drums backing him, the sludge rocker “Roger and Out” honored a fallen veteran while “Impeach the President” advocated just that, complete with lyrics scrolling reasons why.
That was radical, but not so much as hearing the thousands of people uniting to join him, in the first mass singalong of the night