Album Review: “Stephen Stills, Live at Berkeley 1971” — A Welcome Blast From the Past
By Jason M. Rubin
Among its many virtues, this archival live release from Stephen Stills reminds us of an era when great music was human-generated — written and performed with love.
Seeing his longtime on-and-off musical partner Neil Young making money and headlines with archival live releases the last several years, Stephen Stills decided to release his own blast from the past, a live concert from 1971 that closed out a tour for his second solo album, Stephen Stills 2, from which “Change Partners” emerged as a moderate hit single (it charted no higher than 43). Oddly, that song didn’t make it to the set list or, if it did, it wasn’t deemed suitable for Stephen Stills, Live at Berkeley 1971. No matter, this 15-song, hour-long album is chock full of goodies from his first two solo albums, as well as one song, “Jesus Gave Love Away For Free,” that wouldn’t be released until a year later on the first Manassas album. Crosby, Stills and Nash/ Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young material is limited to “49 Bye Byes,” which Stills pairs with his Buffalo Springfield anthem, “For What It’s Worth,” and two songs featuring special guest David Crosby: “You Don’t Have to Cry” and Crosby’s “The Lee Shore.”
More than two-thirds of the set is performed by Stills solo on acoustic guitar or piano, with occasional background vocals from second guitarist Steve Fromholz. The album opens with “Love the One You’re With” and “Do for the Others,” which is exactly how his first solo album began. After “Jesus” and the Crosby tunes, the remainder of the set is dominated by songs from Stephen Stills 2: “Word Game,” “Sugar Babe,” “Know You’ve Got to Run,” “Bluebird Revisited,” and the closing “Ecology Song.” His first album gets a couple of additional looks with the inclusion of “Black Queen” and “Cherokee.” The only song not typically associated with Stills is “Lean On Me” (not the Bill Withers hit), which was composed by two members of the Memphis Horns, who provide backing during the later band numbers.
Instrumentally, Stills is flawless throughout. Though he is often overlooked because of CSN’s mellow image, Stills is one of rock’s finest guitarists and a real wizard on acoustic (the late Michael Hedges once said, “I got everything I know from Stephen Stills. Those people who thought Clapton was God hadn’t heard Stills play acoustic guitar.”). “Black Queen” has always been a spotlight for his country blues chops, while “Know You Got to Run” finds him picking away on banjo.
Starting with track 11, “Bluebird Revisited,” the band joins in; four members (organist Paul Harris, percussionist Joe Lala, bassist Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels, and drummer Dallas Taylor) would stay with Stills for Manassas. Stills blazes on electric guitar, the rhythm section hums along like a well-oiled machine, and the Memphis Horns add sizzle.
As for his vocals, it’s such a treat to hear a new recording from a young Stills when his voice was strong and full of character. While Graham Nash had the distinctive high voice and Crosby was the honey in the middle, Stills was a wonderful singer who, like the Band’s Richard Manuel, had a voice drenched with emotion and soul; for the last 20 years or so, though, Stills’s voice has been gravelly and inconsistent. On this recording, even though it’s late in the tour, he sings with authority.
This album was drawn from shows held on August 20 and 21 at the Berkeley Community Theater. The tour (dubbed “Memphis Horns Tour”) came to Boston on July 27 at Boston Garden. If I hadn’t been just eight years old at the time, I would have killed to see this show. Fortunately, this document is available to remind us of an era when great music was human-generated — written and performed with love. The songs meant something and artists were cultural heroes, not just fashion icons. Thank God some of these heroes, like Stephen Stills, are still around.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for nearly 40 years, more than half of which as senior creative lead at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency, where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. His latest book, Villainy Ever After (2022), is a collection of classic fairy tales told from the point of view of the villains. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. jasonmrubin.com.