Up close and personal with David Crosby
David Crosby has performed on Maui a number of times over the years – with Crosby, Stills & Nash, with his own CPR band and as a duo with Graham Nash. Now this legendary musician returns to our island in a solo show.
“It’s fun to play in a band, but when you’re by yourself the words really count and you can take people on a voyage and you’re not fighting a lead guitar to get the words across,” says Crosby. “You can work in more shadings and subtlety, and you’re not trying to wave at people from a stage that’s 100 yards away. I really like taking people on a voyage, so it works really well for that.”
A two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, inducted as a member of both the iconic folk-rock band the Byrds and later with Crosby, Stills & Nash, this revered artist can draw from 50-plus years of crafting memorable music.
“There are good songs going back quite a ways,” he says humbly. “Playing concerts by myself, I go clear back to the Byrds.”
So is it a little challenging at all being in the spotlight by himself?
“Not really,” he answers. “I’m very comfortable and loose. I say whatever comes into my head. I tend to be kind of goofy. If you can make people laugh and break the fourth wall and talk to them, you can get them to come along with you and affect them emotionally.”
Along with playing favorites in concert, Crosby is very excited about some new songs he’s composed, with two albums projected for release this year.
The first one, “Lighthouse,” features a collaboration with Michael League, the founder of the brilliant, Grammy-winning jazz fusion band Snarky Puppy.
“They are really, really good,” he enthuses about the group. “A couple of their songs just nail me. I can listen to them a hundred times in a row. Michael is a really good guitar player, singer and lyricist. We had so much fun.”
Is it jazzier than his usual recordings?
“I’ve always been tilted in that direction,” he says. “Steely Dan was my favorite band, and I’ve listened to a lot of jazz. I like more complex chord structures, but this album is mostly acoustic guitar and vocals.”
Crosby discovered Snarky Puppy online, explaining, “Somebody told me, you’ve got to hear them. I listened to them on YouTube and I wound up talking to Michael on the phone and I volunteered to be on their ‘Family Dinner’ benefit record. I spent a week in New Orleans with them and it was one of the best weeks I’ve ever had.”
One of Crosby’s powerful new songs he performs in concert, “Somebody Home,” is featured on Snarky Puppy’s recent live DVD/CD “Family Dinner – Volume Two,” and on the forthcoming “Lighthouse.” It’s kind of an apology to women, about men who are just focused on surface appearance.
In a Rolling Stone interview, League reported: “In my opinion, he’s (Crosby) writing the best music of his entire life right now.”
The second recording project teams him with his son James Raymond, who has played with his dad since the formation of the CPR band in the mid-’90s. With CPR, Crosby created some of the finest compositions of his career.
“I’m about eight songs into that one,” he reports. “Michael McDonald and I have a jazz ballad on there that we wrote together. It’s more of a full band record. If anything, it’s jazzier than the one I did with the jazz guys. My son likes complex chord structures and unusual time signatures and unusual melodies the same as me.”
Crosby first connected with his son, whom the rock star had given up for adoption, around the time of his life-saving liver transplant.
“I was about a week from dying,” he reveals. “Then all of a sudden, you’re not sick anymore and you’re getting better every day. The effect on you emotionally is that every minute of your life becomes totally precious. You don’t want to waste five seconds. It’s a big, powerful thing that climbs right inside you and lives there. You just want to work all the time and do good things with every second of your time.”
Ever since his early days with the Byrds in the 1960s, Crosby has been known for crafting unforgettable songs with interesting tunings and unusual melodies. And gorgeous harmonies have been a hallmark of his music.
“I started singing harmony when I was about 6, my family told me,” he notes. “It’s always been a part of me, I just love it. I fell in love with the Everly Brothers because of their harmony.”
As a founding member of the Byrds, one of the most influential bands of the ’60s, he helped create and popularize the highly influential folk-rock sound. Formed in Los Angeles in 1964, the Byrds won widespread acclaim for hits like “Eight Miles High,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Was he responsible for guiding the Byrds with their harmonies?
“I didn’t go, ‘All right lads, I’m going to show you,’ we just naturally did it,” he recalls. “Gene (Clark) and Roger (McGuinn) would write these Beatles-ish songs and I just started singing harmony to them.”
While performing at the historic Monterey Pop Music Festival in 1967 in California, Crosby played with the Byrds and substituted for Neil Young with Buffalo Springfield.
Later that year, he embarked on a decades-long collaboration with Nash and Stephen Stills. Renowned for their intricate vocal harmonies, stellar musicianship and timeless songs, CS&N became the voice of the Woodstock generation.
The trio’s self-titled, multi-platinum-selling debut album introduced such classics as Stills’ “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Nash’s “Teach Your Children” and “Marrakech Express,” and the Crosby-penned “Guinnevere” and “Wooden Ships.”
Along with his CS&N classics like “Deja vu” and “Guinnevere,” his Maui show will also draw from his solo albums, including his 1971 masterpiece, “If Only I Could Remember My Name,” which was surprisingly singled out in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, in 2010 as one of the “Top 10 Pop Albums of All Time.”
“How did that happen?” he wonders laughing. “The next album on the list under me was a Pink Floyd record. I got an email from (Floyd’s) David Gilmour, saying, ‘Damn it,’ which just cracked me up.”
Besides his inspired songs, Crosby has long been known
for his dedication to social activism. His interest in the power of music to foster change led to his book and documentary “Stand and Be Counted.”
“I’ve had a fascination with music and activist rights from encountering the Weavers and Odetta and people like that,” he explains. “It went from there to civil rights, women’s rights, human rights, anti-nukes and anti-war. I’ve had these good examples like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez, people who really stood up for what they believed in and really put their lives on the line. Harry Belafonte walked with Dr. King in Selma and Montgomery with rifles in the bushes. It’s very inspiring. Human beings can be incredibly inspiring. One act of exemplary humanity can do so much good in terms of leading you to do what’s right.”
In the midst of our crazy presidential circus, has he any pertinent thoughts?
“It’s very discouraging to see a clown like (Donald) Trump being even considered for president,” he says. “To see a bigoted, misogynist is very discouraging. I was in Europe and Canada recently and they are looking at us aghast – how did you let this happen? It’s scary. I love this country, but it’s more of a corporatocracy now and they don’t have any conscience or principles, it’s just greed.”
Not one to hold back on his views, Crosby delights in communicating with fans through his Twitter site.
“I fool around on Twitter and Facebook and I’m starting on Instagram,” he says. “I like communicating with people.”
And during his current tour, he’s been soliciting audience questions (send them to email@example.com).
“I absolutely love questions,” he says. “Tee the ball up for me and hand me the club.”
Out on the road solo, Crosby has been receiving rave reviews. Vortex Music Magazine praised: “At 74 years of age, he can command the stage with just a couple of acoustic guitars, his voice and a seemingly endless catalog of songs. His voice remains as strong as ever, graceful and emotional, hitting all the right notes. His guitar playing was near flawless, his voice was pure and clear.”
Reflecting on his creative renaissance (he interrupted a songwriting session with jazz musician Becca Stevens to do this interview), Crosby affirms: “I’m feeling good and loving writing. I don’t know why it’s happening this late in the game. I should have been dead already or at least hunched over a park bench, but I feel very alive.”