Thursday, June 2, 2011

Their first tour in 43 years, Buffalo Springfield 'played like a band genuinely reborn'

"Thank you, we're Buffalo Springfield," Neil Young announced early in the band's June 1st show at the Fox Theater in Oakland, the opening date of the Springfield's first tour since the spring of 1968. "We're from the past," Young added drily.
They were not – he could have added without fear of contradiction – stuck in it. For nearly two hours, in a performance comprised almost entirely of songs from nearly half a century ago, Buffalo Springfield's surviving members and original vocal-songwriting front line – Young and singer-guitarists Stephen Stills and Richie Furay – played like a band genuinely reborn: thrilled to be on stage again, determined not to let their songs or legacy down. There was jubilant fraternity in the close-harmony singing, especially by Young and Furay in the soft vocal rain at the end of "On the Way Home" and their gleaming Morse-code flourishes behind Stills' grainy tenor in "Rock and Roll Woman."

There was also nerve. After a 14-song set that veered from "Hot Dusty Roads" and "Everybody's Wrong," a pair of gritty Stills numbers from deep inside the 1966 debut LP, Buffalo Springfield, to Furay's great lost ballad "Sad Memory" from 1967's Buffalo Springfield Again, Young opened the encore by leading the group through "Broken Arrow," his epic frontier daydream at the end of Again. A complex studio creation, it was recorded by Young as a solo piece, with session men, and never performed live in the Springfield's first lifetime. Tonight, the song featured Stills at the piano, Furay flying next to Young in the chorus harmonies and its original honky-tonk country coda. This was more than exciting resurrection – it was a kind of justice, the way the Springfield would have played and recorded Young's suite if they hadn't been so busy falling apart at the time.

Formed in the spring of 1966, Buffalo Springfield played their last show in May, 1968 in Long Beach, California. In between, they were one of the most gifted and fractious bands of their day, ultimately better known for their precedents – like the strong early whiff of country in their rock – and aftermaths: Crosby Stills and Nash; Furay's great twang-rock band Poco; Young's solo triumphs and eccentricities. The original Springfield, with bassist Bruce Palmer (who died in 2004) and drummer Dewey Martin (who passed away in 2009), made only one album, 1966's Buffalo Springfield, before tensions set in and Young started his comings and goings. Again and 1968's Last Time Around were more like anthologies, comprised of songs made by versions of the group, depending on who wrote the song and led the session.

At the Fox, the first date of a week-long run in California (with more shows reportedly in the offing), Young, Furay and Stills were supported by the strong steady drive of drummer Joe Vitale and bassist Rick Rosas, the rhythm section from the Springfield's reunion debut last fall at Young's Bridge School benefit. The set list also reprised the songs from that show, including Furay's "A Child's Claim to Fame," the strident jangle of Stills' "Go and Say Goodbye" (introduced by Young at the Fox as "the B-side of our first single") and Young's plaintive "Burned." Young couldn't help making repeated jokes about the time that had passed. "You know Rosemary Woods?" he asked at one point, getting puzzled looks from Stills and Furay. "Nixon's secretary?" Young went on. "I wonder if she knows anything about a 44-year gap?" – an arcane reference to a Watergate tape. Furay, who has been a pastor in Colorado since the early Eighties, turned to Young. "Forty four years? That's how long I've been married," he said, before singing his Last Time Around waltz "Kind Woman," with Young at the piano and Stills punctuating Furay's bright strong vocal with machine-gun bursts of flamenco strumming.

Some of the most striking moments of the night came in the way this Springfield readdressed their younger selves: the addition of Young's mourning-Seventies harmonica in "I Am a Child"; the way he punched up the fuzz on his guitar in "Mr. Soul," as if he was playing it with Crazy Horse, and traded verses in "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" with Furay, the lead vocalist on the original recording. In the final encores – Stills' '67 hit about L.A. martial law, "For What It's Worth" and Young's furious update of America at war with itself, "Rockin' in the Free World" – the two guitarists cranked up the swordsmanship and outrage, Young spiking the former with tremolo-shiver shrieks, Stills taking the second verse in the latter with a ragged-vocal fury. Gillian Welch, who opened the evening with a set of mountain-country rapture accompanied by her husband, guitarist David Rawlings, remarked to the audience that she turned up for the night "pretty cool, calm and collected. Then I heard these guys sound checking. It freaked me out!"

At one point in the Springfield's set, during the waltz-time chorus of "Clancy," Young, Furay and Stills came together in a striking delighted harmony. It was the sound of older men singing with pleasure and a determination to do honor to their beginnings and legend. This was music from the past. But as they embraced it tonight, it never sounded more alive.
Set List
1. On the Way Home
2. Rock & Roll Woman
3. Burned
4. A Child's Claim to Fame
5. Do I Have To Come Right Out And Say It?
6. Go and Say Goodbye
7. I Am a Child
8. Hot Dusty Roads
9. Kind Woman
10. Mr. Soul
11. Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing
12. My Kind of Love
13. Everybody's Wrong
14. Sad Memory
15. Bluebird
16. Broken Arrow
17. For What It's Worth
18. Rockin' in the Free World


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