When Crosby, Stills & Nash appeared on The Tonight Show last September 16, it wasn’t by any means the weirdest thing that happened that week. But it was a good reminder of why we keep these old troubadours around. That night they introduced a song Nash had just written, "Half Your Angels," which has the kind of gentle sentiment he’s always been good at. It didn’t appear that CSN were out to make a major statement; they were just there to provide a bit of quiet reassurance — in other words, to do the same job they took on some 30 years ago.
It was more like noisy reassurance when the trio regrouped with Neil Young over the weekend at the FleetCenter. At this point, no one’s pretending the four bandmembers are on an equal footing: Young’s the star, and if he wants to take long guitar solos, bring in his choice of backing band (a damn fine one, Booker T. Jones with two of the MG’s), and play four songs from his forthcoming solo album, that’s what he’ll do. He was in the mood for blasting, and the finale of the almost three-hour show was priceless: "Rockin’ in the Free World" dissolved into five minutes of unmitigated feedback, with Young thrashing into the amps while CSN stood around looking flustered.
Yet the two factions worked better together than you might have expected, adding four-part harmonies to songs (like Young’s "Old Man") that didn’t originally feature them. And Young wasn’t the only guitarslinger on stage: Stills played some mean leads of his own, and the two repeatedly went at it while Jones’s organ kept them grounded. Some old tunes have weathered better than others ("Our House" already sounded pretty twee in 1970); the harmonies were sometimes solid, sometimes shaky. The opening shot of "Carry On" and "Going Home" (the best of Young’s new songs, the one Crazy Horse epic on his upcoming Are You Passionate?) was an unusually tough statement from this crew.
Post–September 11 subtext was all over the set list: in the songs they’ve been doing all along ("Carry On"), in the oldies they’ve lately unearthed ("Nash’s "Military Madness," Crosby’s "Long Time Gone"), and in a couple of new ones ("Half Your Angels" and Young’s "Let’s Roll," whose tense funk setting is a good match for its lyric). The preference for topical songs meant that some of their biggies (most surprisingly, "Teach Your Children") didn’t get played, and neither did anything from 1999’s half-baked reunion album, Looking Forward. The other new song, Stills’s "Feed the People," made a shameless plea for peace and love — but after last September, that’s no longer a crime.