Put the Boot In: Stephen Stills and Graham Nash Live at Winterland 1969 – ‘The Will to Play’

by | Aug 2, 2020 | 0 comments

In the heyday of the late 1960’s mind blowing concert line
ups were the norm. On any night, especially in San Francisco, there was bound
to be a stunning array of legendary musicians taking the stage. These tribal
gatherings were usually put together by famed concert impresario Bill Graham. One
Fall weekend on October 24th and 25th in 1969,
psychedelic rock masters the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane shared a
double bill at the WInterland ballroom. While this was not unusual for the two
San Francisco contemporaries to be on the same bill, what makes the performance
on October 25, 1969 especially unique is the duo that was invited to play an
intermission set.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and sometimes Young had built a
relationship with a number of San Francisco groups during this era, with many
if not all of the fellow musicians contributing to and playing on the others
studio recordings and even on the live stage. All of CSNY’s principals had come from major bands of the time, the ‘Byrds’, ‘Hollies and ‘Buffalo Springfield respectively; with all the members firmly entrenched in rock’s fraternity. The conglomerate of these
musicians played under the moniker of the ‘Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra’
and collaborated on a number of records including but not limited to, Jefferson
Starship’s Blows Against the Empire, Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, and
Nash’s Songs For Beginners. Stills
had even composed a song, ‘Black Queen’ to play on stage with the Grateful Dead
and had high hopes of producing them. He did end up joining the Dead on this
evening during their set for a hearty and bluesy version of ‘Turn on Your
Lovelight’.

This particular evening should have featured David Crosby as
well, who was additionally a very close friend of the Dead and Airplane. Unfortunately he
was enveloped in a deep mourning following the loss of his girlfriend Christine Hinton in
a terrible automobile accident. Crosby would never be the same, and for the
immediate interim he was in no condition to create music and perform. So, the
band’s activities were put on the shelf while Croz recovered. Stills and Nash
were the natural choice to take the stage while they waited for their musical
futures to be determined. Following a series of concert cancellations following
Hinton’s death, this recently discovered performance was a way for Stephen and
Graham to keep active and try out some material.

Just the previous evening at nearby Wally Heider’s
studio Stephen Stills and Graham Nash minus David were working on the upcoming
CSNY LP eventually to be named ‘Déjà vu’. Jerry Garcia was invited to apply his
considerable talents on the pedal steel to Nash’s track ‘Teach Your Children’
when Stills thought it needed a deeper ‘country’ aesthetic that he thought his
playing could not provide. Obviously, his choice was right as Garcia poured out
a rich cool stream of ‘Bakersfield’ melodicism to Nash’s classic.  (Garcia would go on to contribute each of Stephen,
David, and Graham’s future solo LP’s) As an aside, Garcia would be given a
beautiful 1957 Fender Stratocaster by Nash for his assistance on Nash’s songs,
later known as ‘Alligator’ which the ‘rock room’ previously wrote about here.

Graham Nash speculates that it was Garcia who invited the
pair to perform the next evening after their recording of ‘Teach Your
Children’, regardless of who gave the invite, it happened. While sonically
pleasing soundboard recordings of both the Dead and Airplane sets have
circulated amongst traders for some time, the rumored set by Stills and Nash
has not. Though bits and pieces of the tape had started to surface as of last
year. Now, thanks to famed sound man and LSD chemist Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley and
Grateful Dead collector and archivist Charlie Miller the Stills and Nash set
circulates in wonderful soundboard quality.  

The waaaaaay casual performance begins with a Bill Graham
introduction as the performers take their places on the stage. A number of on
stage asides can be discerned as well as the tangible excitement and musical
friendship between Stephen and Graham. As he takes the stage Nash asks for a
drink for his parched throat, while making sure it’s a ‘straight’ drink. Nash
returns to introduce the debut of ‘Teach Your Children’ but then defers. As
Nash commences his on stage search off mic, Stephen begins to pour out some
acoustic blues. The show begins in earnest with a funky syncopated version of Robert
Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’. Taking a number of licks from his country blues satchel,
Stills begins to duet with his guitar singing in his honey sweet 1960’s Buffalo
Springfield throat. Stills sings all three verses while dicing the song with a
stinging solo. Nash lends a boisterous ‘Yeah!’ following Stephen’s spotlight
moment.

Next, Nash joins Stephen for real and introduces ‘A little
country tune we know’ before revealing the first performance of a fifty year
nightly career song and probably his most famous composition, ‘Teach Your
Children’. Here Stephen and Graham give it a confident reading, only missing
the buttery Crosby harmonies, the song is still a stunner. Stephen and Graham
sing joyously with a few lyrics yet to be pressed into stone.  An unassuming beginning for what would become
a worldwide favorite after its official release on 1970’s CSNY LP Déjà vu.

A brief break follows before Stills introduces a new song
composed by John Sebastian. Sebastian was a close friend of Crosby Stills and
Nash and in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion one of the finest songwriters
anyone has ever witnessed. ‘How Have You Been’ follows and I assert is the
highlight of the performance. The song would be worked out in the studio by CSN
in addition to this previously unknown performance; which makes me assume it
was in the running for an album track at some point in time. The song would
make a proper appearance on Sebastian’s 1970 solo album, John B. Sebastian. Stills sings the shit out of the track on this
evening with Nash in close support harmonies that sound like the two are blood
relatives. Back porch guitar, double exposed harmonies and a full investment in
Sebastian lyrics allow the song to sigh with a delicate hopefulness.

After a short on stage discussion, Stills and Nash decide to
play a ‘fast’ singalong with ‘Lonesome Valley’, with Nash inviting the crowd to
join. ‘Lonesome Valley’ is a Woody Guthrie song well known to a number of the attendees that evening and a song Stills was familiar with from his time with the Au Go Go Singers‘. Performed as a call and response
stomp, Graham and Stephen state and reply the verses before harmonizing on the
final lines. Nash soars to ‘Hollies’ heights with his famous songbird tenor,
sometimes missing the mark, but making the performance so endearing.  A unique song and even more special reading
that places the ‘rock room’ center stage while taking a big gulp of Kool Aid.

Some additional on stage discussions reveal that the duo is
short on time, before Graham Nash announces, ‘We are going to leave, but just before
we do I want to hear Stephen sing some blues’. Closing the duos set is an early
‘Black Queen’, played with smoke and leaving whiskey rings on the table. A song
Stills composed for the Grateful Dead, the song would eventually become a show
stopper for Stills and appearing on his first solo LP
Stephen Stills with the disclaimer, ‘Courtesy of Jose Cuervo
tequila’. Stills gets dirty with a jumpy version that spotlights his spooky
picking. Midway through the song at around three minutes Stephen hits on a
repetitive melody that morphs into lush backcountry strumming.
 This is Stephen’s own variety of the blues,
his voice as important as the licks, and working together like Aces in a hand. The jam elicits humid air and after an additional verse Stills again
sings with his instrument. Howling like the town crier, Stills allows his
stunning falsetto to caress the strings, entering into an extended and stony
exploration of the song’s central licks. After a small vocal misfire, Stills
shrugs it off and enters into a fitting conclusion with some additional big
falsetto. The crowd explodes in kind and MC Bill Graham again introduces the duo
before the tape cuts.

One of the eventualities that thrills the ‘rock room’ more
than anything is when new or unknown music circulates. This recent discovery of
this tape of Graham Nash and Stephen Stills live at Winterland allows not only
a musical epiphany but an important historical glimpse as well. The recording
captures the band or in this case the duo in an important and formative time. It
allows us to place a cup on the door and listen for magic and clues that a ‘rock
geek’ like myself lives for. The ability to listen to a fifty year old
unofficial recording to mine for ‘rock gold’ is a welcome proposition. Thanks
to taper and chemist Owsley Stanley for again capturing lightning in a bottle
and placing it on magnetic tape. Thank you to Charlie Miller for recovering the
reel and releasing it into the wild for all to enjoy.

 

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