Rock Room on the Road: Graham Nash – Live at Ithaca State Theater March 7, 2020 ‘I Can See My Life Before Me’

by | Mar 12, 2020 | 0 comments

On Saturday March 7, 2020 Graham Nash stopped into the
historic State Theater in Ithaca, NY for his Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories 2020 tour. Joined by longtime
musical companion Shane Fontayne on guitar and vocals and former ‘CSN’ organist/vocalist
Todd Caldwell, Nash put together an airy and diverse trio to play a cross-section
of his music hailing from the ‘Hollies’, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, ‘CSNY’ and
his solo career. Just a ‘rock room’ observation, I feel Nash emanated a vibe of
seriousness throughout the evening, and maybe even a hint of sadness. I will not
pretend to act that this is fact, but in my mind his stature only increased the
poignancy of the performance.
The 1,600 seat State Theater was about ¾ capacity when the
performance started promptly at 8:00 PM. I sat third row stage left and had a wonderful
cross stage view of the proceedings. Regardless of current world events, the
show must go on and Nash gave myself and the assembled crowd a couple hours to
not think about the chaos surrounding us. Nash was in amazing voice on this
evening. I have seen Nash over 30 times in multiple configurations since the
early 1990’s and honestly I can say that he has never sounded better. My
expectations were greatly surpassed but I was not surprised. The concert was
comprised of two sets, infusing a multifarious collection of favorites, deep
cuts and surprises.
Nash begin the evening on his beautiful Martin acoustic with
his composition ‘Wasted on the Way’, a ‘Crosby Stills and Nash single’ from
1982 and a top ten hit for the band. Lyrically fitting for the start of the
evening as the song disseminates the realization that Nash and his musical
friends have/had wasted so much time on petty jealousies and meaningless fodder
as opposed to concentrating on the things that really matter.
Following comes the first ‘deep’ cut of the evening, ‘King
Midas in Reverse’, a 1967 single by the ‘Hollies’ which didn’t do much, yet for
Nash’s fans is a well-loved cut. I was especially excited as Nash had been
playing ‘Bus Stop’ in the slot currently but changed it up on this evening.
Lucky us! Nash soared on the choruses with his duo of musicians providing
buttery harmonies. The band created a pale paisley of sound with Caldwell
laying lush brush strokes of color under the drumless sway. Fontayne was and is
a stellar musician throughout the night, adding perfectly placed dabs of melody
and sonic displacement under Nash’s rhythmic strums.
Before I could take a breath, ‘I Used to Be a King’ from
Nash’s 1971 LP Songs For Beginners came
next. Here Fontayne resurrected Jerry Garcia’s silvery pedal steel from the
studio recording with illuminating riffing the crystallized in the still State
Theater air. Nash with eyes closed reached for the top rungs of the chorus and
hit them with light fingertips. The crowd, even those unfamiliar with the song
sat in amazed silence.

Graham had no qualms about stating his mind throughout the
evening, even dropping a few ‘F bombs’ to get his point across. Prior to another
Songs from Beginners track ‘Chicago’
Graham told the story of how he was inspired to write the song in addition to
mentioning that no one should be ‘fucking’ surprised that he will be discussing the current political climate throughout the performance. Nash said that if you
have ever been to a CSNY show you should know what to expect. Nash then sat at
the center stage piano and pounded the black and white keys into the stomping intro to ‘Chicago (We Can Change the World)’.
Graham dug into this cut with a fierce determination, even adding our current
President’s name to some of the lyrics, illustrating the song’s 50 year relevance. Members
of the audience rose to their feet at the songs conclusion realizing the songs
importance even in current times.

After the thrilling opening to set one, Nash thumbed through
his back catalog to play a deeper cut from his impressive discography. Nash preceded
‘Carried Away’, from the 1977 CSN LP
with a tale regarding his lust for an island woman who was already on her way
to somewhere else with her ‘old man’. Still at piano, Nash played an introspective version of
the cut that pimpled my skin and watered my eyes. The melody initiated images, while Nash’s voice brought out emotions in me that didn’t exist prior to the song. A performer
at his finest.
‘Sleep Song’, ‘4 + 20’, ‘Military Madness’ come next in the
set. ‘4+20’ was a surprise seeing Graham play a song that one of his music water
brothers composed. Similarly to the evening thus far Nash stamped the song with
his own floating tenor and made the cut a highlight of his own. ‘Military
Madness’ received the torch from ‘Chicago’ and was played with a gruff ambition
while again name checking a certain person in power. The crowd loved it and the
song was spotlighted by Fontayne’s sonic expressions.
In my mind I hoped that the penultimate performance of the
set, the Crosby/ Nash song ‘Wind on the Water’ from their LP of the same name was
added as an olive branch to David Crosby. I know this was not the case, but
nonetheless I let the song for the world’s whales wash over me, an ocean tide of
prismatic melody, buoyed by Nash’s piano and decorated with ocean calls and
salty foam by the apt duo of Fontayne and Caldwell. I must not neglect to
mention Fontayne and Caldwell’s wonderful additions vocally to songs that are
not easy to sing harmonies on. I not once caught myself hoping for other
voices, each cut was rendered with vocal care and ability.
Closing set one, was not a deep cut, but was a surprise. The
trio finished with the Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’. For sure not the song I was
expecting this trio to cover, but similarly to the rest of the evening they did
a masterful job. Nash’s voice a hand in glove fit for the song, the groups contrary sparse arrangement
fitting, and the song’s peaks reached with a swirling dervish of sound between guitar
and organ. A standing ovation initiated and a 20 minute break before set two.
Nash and his friends returned to the darkened stage after a brief
break opening the final set with perhaps his most well-known song, ‘Marrakesh
Express’. This opening ‘CSN’ song got some ladies dancing in the isles and got attendees going immediately. Nash stayed on guitar and followed the 1-2 punch
with perhaps his most famous solo cut, ‘Immigration Man’. This song also
chilling for its contextual relevance even 50 years after its genesis. The trio
definitely raised the temperature in the venue and I could feel that set two
was going to be filled with the ‘heavy hitters’.
Graham returned to the piano and strapped on his harmonica
for a barren and truthful, ‘Simple Man’. He introduced the song stating that he
wrote the song for Joni and premiered the tune at the Fillmore East in 1970
with Joni Mitchell sitting in the audience. A picture perfect rendition and a version
that I feel lucky to have witnessed. As an aside, I met Graham in 1997 and
requested ‘Simple Man’ prior to a Syracuse, NY show which he kindly played for me that evening. Memories.
Similarly to the first set, Nash injected a duo of deep cuts
as he returned to his acoustic at center stage.  The first, ‘Right between the Eyes’ made its
only appearance on the ‘CSNY’ live LP Four
Way Street.
Nash was quoted as saying to Rolling Stone, “I was seduced by a beautiful woman down in Long
Island. She was married. The song is a confession to a friend”. At the State
Theatre, Nash added that the song was written for John Sebastian, so some
contextual dots were connected. Using the same musical configuration, the band
also dug out ‘Taken At All’ from the 1976 Crosby/Nash album. Another stand out
performance Nash swayed, and grimaced as he finger picked his way through the
changes. Fontayne brought a smile to Nash’s face with many of his deft string
swells. Three part harmonies were as tight as family and Nash seemed pleased
with what transpired on stage.
The only disappointment that I felt during the whole show
came after the trio played ‘Golden Days’ from Nash’s most recent album This Path Tonight. Nash’s current
writing has been so strong I would have liked to see this LP explored more thoroughly,
but it’s a minor gripe. Regardless, this was a stunning performance, with Nash
standing without instrument at the mic, and additional towering harmonies supported by the delicate music box melody.
The harmonies remained a focus as the three musicians gathered around one microphone for the final verses of Nash’s ‘Wounded Bird’, again from
his 1971 LP Songs for Beginners. Nash
strummed his Martin, his head tilted back, singing each verse better than the
previous. As the song concluded Nash mouthed ‘Thank you’ and smiled aware of
the amazing version just played.
Following this absolutely dizzying array of songs and stories
covering Nash’s fifty plus years of performing, Nash and friends prepared to
knock the rest of the set out of the theater. Beginning with another Stephen
Stills cover, Nash began to strum the undulating riff of ‘Love the One You With’.
Kicking off the home stretch with a huge singalong love fest, Nash received assistance
from Caldwell’s slippery B3 and got the theater to shake their buns and scream out
the choruses.
Then in rapid fire succession, out come the ‘big guns’, “Just a
Song before I Go’, ‘Cathedral’ and the expected and hoped for ‘Our House’.
Peaking musically and aesthetically, the crowd grooves, Nash and company bang
out the hits and there are smiles abound. Even ‘Our House’ took on a deep poignancy
when combined with all of the emotions Nash stirred up over the course of the
evening. The crown responded expectantly and excitedly as Nash took his bow for a close to set two.
Returning to the stage for an encore, Nash dug into his
childhood for a surprising reading of Buddy Holly’s ‘Everyday’. Again, joined
by Fontayne and Caldwell at the microphone in three part, a tender and
harmonious cover of ‘Everyday’ seemed to sum up the entire evening. Love,
friendship, rock and roll, politics, loss, hope…….it all seemed to coalesce into
a song that obviously had a huge bearing on what Graham Nash decided to do with
his life. Then, just when you think the show was over, the ringing introductory
D chord of ‘Teach Your Children’ concluded the evening with words we should and
could all take to heart. The crowd smiled with Nash, while singing a song he
has performed thousands of times prior, while still taking on a powerful relevance
for all involved.
The best music is ageless and one thing of many that I took away
from Graham Nash’s performance at State Theater Ithaca, is that his
compositions are timeless. It may seem obvious, but when a listener is able to
relate on such a profound level to an artist who has lived such a different
life it can elevate both performer and attendee. Nash has always been quietly
making amazing music just out of the shadow of his three former band mates. His
songs have provided foundational melodies that everyone remembers even if they
don’t know how. His gifts were and continue to be an essential element in every artistic endeavor he has undertaken Thank you for the songs Graham Nash.

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