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Archive 2008: Stephen Stills

City Hall, Sheffield
Saturday 18 October 2008

If Stephen Stills' voice isn't as strong as it was in 1970, it's more than forgivable, not only in terms of times' slipping sand or indeed the thirty-eight years that have passed between then and now, but it also might be down to the fact that he probably didn't have the strength or inclination to blow out the sixty-three candles on his birthday cake earlier this year, whilst undergoing surgery for prostate cancer that very same day.

Who would've thought eight months later our man would be touring again? That's what is so forgivable; that we don't get the exact precise same vocal delivery on songs such as Rock and Roll Woman, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes or Change Partners, but boy, do we get the same guitar playing and the same intensity of performance.

Stephen Stills has done it all. The first artist to be inducted twice on the same night into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, for his work with both Buffalo Springfield and CSN; the young man who almost got a gig as a Monkee, had his teeth been better or had he not sported such a premature receding hairline; the guitarist who was so good as to get to play regularly with his mate Jimi Hendrix; the angry young man who was unfortunately caught on camera having fisticuffs with a fellow hippie during the late summer of love in the celebrated festival film 'Celebration'; but also the man who has enjoyed a very healthy solo career, producing several class albums over a period spanning nearly five decades, and still, he has the slowest receding hairline. He looks no different from the guy serenading a toy giraffe in the snow on the cover of his eponymously titled debut album of 1970.

Tonight Stephen Stills calmly wandered onstage at the Sheffield City Hall fresh from his appearance on Later with Jools a couple of nights earlier, to play two outstanding sets covering almost every aspect of his career so far, with firstly an acoustic set, followed by a much rockier set with a small band consisting of Joe Vitale (drums), Kenny Pasarelli (Bass) and Todd Caldwell (keyboards).

Opening with a song that would no doubt have pleased the Crosby Stills Nash fans amongst us, Helplessly Hoping reminded us not just of the close harmony singing that this trio were famous for, but that Stills could write good songs every now and then, and songs that stand up on their own merit without having to be allied to the 'supergroup' tag.

Somewhere during the first three songs, Stephen suffered a minor injury to one of his fingers, which clearly plagued him throughout the rest of the show. No matter though, it wasn't noticeable in his playing, only in his pained expression each time he forgot about it, then was sharply reminded of it moments later.

Even though Stephen's vocal delivery is not as it used to be, Treetop Flyer was performed with that old assurance and command, equaling the studio version found on his STILLS ALONE album. There were one or two moments when the voice threatened to let him down, Change Partners for instance, but songs like "4+20" brought some of that old magic back way before he could be accused of losing it. It's been a while since I attended a concert where each song was applauded during the opening few bars rather than just at the end of the song.

Referring to Ringo Starr as 'a drummer friend' when introducing Johnny's Garden, Stills reminded us of Peter Sellers' portrayal of Chauncey Gardiner in 'Being There', which he revealed was a thinly disguised portrayal of the gardener they each shared respectively in a Surrey House that was passed between the three of them in the 1970s.

Stills introduced the closing song of the acoustic set by saying 'with your permission I shall step into the Abyss', going on to perform the masterpiece that is Suite: Judy Blue Eyes in its entirety. The band that was to play throughout the second set, returned to the stage to join in on the memorable broken Spanish vocal coda, which had the entire City Hall audience singing along enthusiastically.

Although the first set was largely acoustic, the second set was a much rockier affair and you get the feeling this is where Stills' comfort zone most definitely resides. Opening with the Manassas classic Isn't It About Time, Stills easily found his groove and we were set for an outstanding set of Stills' classics from Buffalo Springfield through to the present day, with the inclusion of a cover of Tom Petty's recent The Wrong Thing To Do and the Stills/Nash collaborative blues Wounded World from the MAN ALIVE album, with it's clear anti Bush message.

Stills is no stranger of political commentary in his songs and in fact made a successful hit record out of one particular incident that has subsequently been thought to be about the infamous Kent State shootings (it isn't), and we were fortunate to have a sneak preview of Stills Performing a solo version of the Buffalo Springfield classic For What It's Worth accompanying himself on piano on Later with Jools the night before this gig. Tonight though, Stills returned to his trusty guitar, and with the help of his tight band, the song was performed to close the show.

With an encore of the Sixties anthem Love the One You're With, Stills faced a standing ovation at the Sheffield City Hall.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky