Stephen Stills is a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter who has contributed remarkable, deeply humanand humanizingsongs to the rock 'n' roll canon for going on 52 years. An unabashed liberal who has contributed to numerous political campaigns over the years, Stills puts passion and conviction into his artistry. He always has. Remember the first time you heard "For What It's Worth," the Buffalo Springfield debut released in spring 1967? It set protest in a perfect pop frame, articulating the potent blend of paranoia and aspiration that infused so much '60s politics.
This anthology, produced by Stills, Graham Nash and Joel Bernstein, delivers 82 tracks, 25 of them previously unreleased, spanning pre-Buffalo Springfield acoustic tunes to a spare acoustic recordingfeaturing the singular harmonies of Stills and Nashof Dylan's "Girl From the North Country," recorded live in October 2012.
The first track is "Travelin,'" a restless foray, recorded in mono in Costa Rica when Stills was 17. While it is folk-rock, its provenance reflects one of the strains for which Stills is famous: Latin. As an Army brat, Stills spent time in various Latin American countries when very young; his music often has a strong Latin feel, most prominently in "Cuba Al Fin," a smoking edit of a tune recorded in 1979 on Havana Jam
, a double LP on Columbia. Stills refined this groove on Manassas
, the great double LP he released on Atlantic in 1972. Manassas may well have been Stills' strongest personal expression as a band; he's too often overlooked as a generator and a singular artist, because of the company he has kept, first in Buffalo Springfield and later in Crosby Stills & Nash
(and sometimes Young). His collegiality spans onetime lover Judy Collins
and jazz pianist Herbie Hancock
Not surprisingly, the box reprises numerous hits, including "Love the One You're With" (in a 45 RPM single mix previously unreleased on CD), Springfield's "Uno Mundo" (again, a 45 RPM single mix previously unreleased on CD), an alternative mix of "Carry On/Questions," by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and "Marianne," a perfect pop single from Stephen Stills 2
(Atlantic, 1971) that should have been a hit (and is the best song Marshall Crenshaw
But song craft and fervor aren't Stills' only touchstones. Above all, he's a player, particularly in his innovative guitar work. He can be filigreed and delicate, as on "Treetop Flyer"; ominous and darkling, on a stunning, live acoustic rendition of Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown"; virtuosic on a panoply of stringed instruments on "Bluebird," one of his early experiments in meter, genre, mood; and downright fierce, going toe-to-toe with Jimi Hendrix
on "No-Name Jam." Like his voiceslightly raspy, engagingly courtly no matter how insistenthis guitar sound is unmistakable, even when it's hard to identify as a guitar.
It's curious to think Stills was a little kid when the Kingston Trio and Woody Guthrie were current. It's enlightening to consider that when he sprang forth full-blown, in "For What It's Worth," he was not only prescient, but he was also ultramodern. Always in the forefront, whether with Springfield, CSN&Y, in Super Session
, or on his own, he's been his own man, fluent in various musical and spoken languages, conversant with themes as fluffy as young love and as gnarly as politics.
The booklet that accompanies this labor-of-love anthology includes essays that speak to Stills' preoccupationschief among them drives toward personal liberation and gender and economic equalityand singular technical prowess. The liner notes in a booklet that runs 115 pages are adulatory and, better yet, informative. One regret is that there's nothing here from Super Session
, a 1968 Columbia LP featuring Michael Bloomfield
(then late of the Electric Flag), Al Kooper
(then late of Blood, Sweat & Tears) and Stills, still wet behind the ears from Buffalo Springfield. Stills' wah-wah work on Donovan's "Season of the Witch" (in a version fully equal to that of Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger
& the Trinity) and on the distortion-rich classic "You Don't Love Me" would have been nifty here, and might have replaced a few of the later offerings in which Stills subordinated his guitar to synthesizer.
Despite that absence, Carry On
is a powerful set attesting to the stick-to-itiveness, creativity and versatility of a man of unmistakable voice and uniquely creative musicianship. Summing it up is challenging; enjoying it is a continuously unfolding pleasure.