Military madness! Live album, to accompany documentary film

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Déjà Vu Live
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In an odd way, Crosby Stills Nash And Young are like superheroes – every time there’s a national emergency that needs addressing, they miraculously turn up. There’s a war that needs protesting? A political situation spinning out of control? Then there they are, to protect the people. From their very earliest days, this band have been a thorn in the side of American presidents, demanding that they stop the war. The only thing that’s changed is that then it was Vietnam, and now it’s Iraq.

Happily, this combative foursome hasn’t substantially altered either. Ambassadors for the Woodstock generation who continue to believe that music can effect revolutionary change, here CSNY present 16 live songs – the album is a companion piece to the politically charged documentary movie CSNY: Déjà vu – that attempt to convince you of the fact, and mostly succeed. When there are anachronistic moments (like when Graham Nash tells us “don’t eat the brown acid”), happily, they’re generally intentional.

They start things off with “What are the Names”, wrenched, like much of the material, from Neil Young’s Living With War album, setting a high righteous tone—complete with a disembodied zombie audience chorus that underscores the solemnity of the tune. This is a band that has never been shy about expressing its outrage—remember bristling anger of 1970’s “Ohio” – and here there’s plenty, including three versions of “Living With War” itself.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about this album is that it’s such an off-the-cuff recording, eschewing much of the precious perfectionism that plagued their earlier incarnations. The original Déjà Vu studio album was made for the expenditure of 800 recording hours. This off-the board recording, meanwhile, is the antithesis of that kind of perfectionism, making it more like 1971’s 4 Way Street – a live album, incidentally, CSNY claim to loathe because they didn’t overdub any parts of it.

Throughout, righteous ire is in plentiful supply. Fom the crisp, no-nonsense indictment of “Military Madness” to “Shock & Awe” with its unnerving trumpet intro, reminiscent of something you might hear at a New Orleans funeral, to Stephen Stills’ 1967 anthem “For What It’s Worth,” the Buffalo Springfield song that became a chilling foreshadow of the campus protest movement that roared through America. Here the song is affectingly covered by the guitarist, who brings a personal note to the song: the frailty of the performance is also an unsettling reminder of what the cost of fame has been for this august musician.

All round the album gives off a sense of shared history, and shared battles, whether they’re personal or political. Particularly interesting in this respect is “Wooden Ships”, which rivals some of Young’s more confrontational encounters with Crazy Horse. Almost engaging in hand-to-hand guitar combat with Stills, it provides a riveting sonic accompaniment to the glaring polemics of the song, reminding fans how the two of them used to push each other to greater heights, when they weren’t sabotaging their muses with offstage arguments.

The highlight of the disc, though, is surely “Impeach The President”. Live, fans saw Young tearing at this guitar with a rubber sandal, providing a literal echo of the song’s “flip-flop” refrain, further underscoring George W. Bush’s policy vacillations. Mostly sung in a ragged monotone, it is more forceful for all it’s flaws, and the homespun accent that Young affects is a better frame for their moral disgust than the band’s customary close harmonies could be. Also of note is that many audience members boo at the end of the song—all but drowning out the cheers. It prompts Young to say: “Thank You. Freedom of Speech.” He’s clearly invigorated by their response, and seems gleeful that the band can still elicit it.

As an encapsulation of the album’s qualities, it couldn’t be much better. This is an urgent, unedited document of social realism, powerful because it reveals these eminent artists caught in the act of channeling their enmity and indignation into a coherent and forceful statement. Here, they sacrifice the close perfect harmonies of their signature albums for something far more important: a call to action.

JAAN UHELSZKI