The Last Great Box Set? Stephen Stills: Carry On (Atlantic/Rhino)

Is this the last great box set? The record labels have done a thorough job scraping the vaults and repackaging assets. As to the box sets we won’t likely see unless and until the record labels and artists settle their differences for certain legacy artists (career retrospectives from the Kinks or Van Morrison), my bet is that Carry On is the final chapter in the lucrative CD compilation business. I admit that much of my music listening is now sourced online (Spotify, etc) after decades of vinyl and CD behavior. Many of the tracks on Carry On can probably be found online, but there is no substitute for the tactile satisfaction of holding a box set of this quality.

So, what do we get in the four CD package? First off, it stands nicely on the shelf between the Crosby and Nash box sets already released. The Stills package was produced by Nash and Joel Bernstein, Stills admits that Nash has far more patience in trawling through thousands of tapes.  The process appeals no doubt to the collector / archivist mindset Nash has shown throughout the non-musical part of his career. The four discs fill out the sonic capacity of the format, and we are rewarded with 82 tracks, 25 of which are previously unreleased.

The Last Great Box Set?

As with most compilations (the Fleetwood Mac box is a tasteful outlier), the Stills collection unfolds in chronological order. “Travelin’” comes from his time at age 17 living in Costa Rica with his military family. The generous 113 page booklet provides a wealth of historical perspective and new photos (many by Nash or Bernstein).

After failing the audition to become one of the Monkees, Stills hit his stride when the supergroup Buffalo Springfield formed. Before the group imploded due to the creative tension and brilliance of Stills, Young, Furay and eventually Messina, the seeds were sown for near immortality.  A dozen Buffalo Springfield tracks are assembled on the first disc, some in mono and one (“Everydays”) previously unreleased. Many of the expected gems from CSN/Y catalog are featured, including a previously unissued mix of the title song which contains an altered, lilting guitar figure.

Given that Stills handled essentially all the instrumentation on the monumental Crosby, Stills and Nash debut, we get a flavor of what Stills had in store. Indeed, his prowess on bass and organ are evident on the bulk of the collection’s songs (and he throws himself successfully into about a dozen other instruments on these songs). It should be noted (it wasn’t in the liner notes) that Stills took some of his early guitar lessons from Don Felder, who brought the rockier edge to the Eagles before being unceremoniously pushed aside by Henley and Frey. Felder also taught a young Tommy Petty.

Disc two starts the Stills solo years, and we are off and running. Blending elements of folk, country, Latin jazz and straight ahead rock, Stills reeled off a tremendous run of acoustic and electric songs.  The first Stills solo album remains the only album featuring both Hendrix and Clapton, a testament to the high esteem Stills was held by fellow guitarists.  The previously unreleased “No-Name Jam” sports Hendrix and Stills in fine 1970 form. Stills’ apogee was forming his next supergroup, Manassas. The four sides of the band’s debut double vinyl album were a powerful testament to any remaining doubters. Wisely left intact on the box set is the original album sequencing of “Rock & Roll Crazies / Cuban Bluegrass” and “Jet Set (Sigh).” Also present are the gems “Colorado” and “Johnny’s Garden,” neither ever sounding better and the latter a wistful ode to Stills’ home in England.

The 1974 CSNY reunion tour was a delight for those of us gathering in summer outdoor stadia. Whether the quartet was lined up on stools four across for the acoustic set or lined up four across for the electric songs (only Stills and Young added significantly to the guitar elements), we were enthralled. My photos from that dreamy day are apparently lost in time, but I do recall handing my camera up to Nash during the opening set by Santana for some onstage photos. Also gone is the denim shirt my girlfriend embroidered for me for the concert, probably worn to threads in the ensuing years.

Stills’ voice is indeed one of the touchstones for many people over the last three or four decades. He appeared at the three iconic festivals of the 60s (Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Altamont) and in 1997 was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice in one night (by an older and wiser Tom Petty). The Venn Diagram in the foregoing sentence probably only overlaps at the name Stephen Arthur Stills.

Although his voice has dimmed in recent years, the fourth disc reveals more recent work in compelling fashion. For instance, from 2012 is a pleasant reading of Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” recorded live during a five night sold out run at NYC’s Beacon Theatre at the end of the CSN tour. Sadly missing from the collection is anything from the volatile Stills/Young pairing that produced the Long May You Run album. The watery aquatic imagery of that collection reflected the locations where the pair wrote most of the songs. Nonetheless, “Black Coral” is presented in its original unreleased form, as a CSNY track recorded on the heels of their 1974 tour. The song was later released on Long May You Run with the Crosby and Nash vocals stripped, leading to yet another donnybrook among the quartet.

Stills and Young, July 4, 1976, Niagara Falls. Young walked out of the tour shortly thereafter, allegedly sending Stills a telegram that read “Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil.” Stills soldiered on and finished the tour solo. (Photo by Brad Auerbach)

A close reading of the liner notes reveals several more notable musicians sitting in over the years: Nils Lofgren (they probably met when Lofgren was working on the early Young solo albums), Bill Wyman, Ringo Starr, Jerry Garcia, John Sebastian, Mama Cass (she put CSN together at a party), Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Page.  As with most career retrospectives of legacy artists, the fourth Stills disc covers more years. He returns to his Latin roots on several cuts, which is poignant. Some of the last few tracks (“No Tears Left”) show some wobbliness, but let’s give the guy credit….he has been down many roads and come back from some demons (many of which are glossed over in the otherwise impressive liner notes). The penultimate track, the previously unreleased “Ole Man Trouble” by Otis Redding serves as a nice slow bluesy distillation of his career.

A few tracks missing, but that is merely editorial quibbling.  Live tracks are sprinkled liberally over the four discs. The artwork is first class throughout, down to the images of the moon waxing on the four discs. Indeed, the subtle but recurrent references to flight are reminiscent of fellow traveler Roger McGuinn’s proclivities. On balance, what we have with Carry On is the last great box set. Savor it often.

 

 


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment and technology scene for many years. He has written for Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and once upon a time won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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