At the end of this month, Cleveland will welcome singer-songwriter Graham Nash back to town for the second time this summer. That’s not too shabby, especially when you consider that we’re talking about a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who has been making music and singing songs for over 50 years. 50 years. The often heard quote from Keith Richards comes to mind when pondering that last statistic: “It’s good to be here….it’s good to be anywhere.”
Nash could teach the world a thing or three about how to properly sing a good harmony vocal and through his work with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the Hollies, he’s already done that — the recorded evidence is right there in the songs that he and his collaborators have put down across the years. But when he came to Cleveland earlier this summer, he was surrounded by a few more people than usual. The Contemporary Youth Orchestra backed him for an evening of music that took stock of his five decades of work.
“[It was] an unbelievable experience,” he says during a recent phone conversation as he was on his way to San Diego. “I think the professionalism of those kids that were playing in that orchestra was amazing to me. And to have a 125-piece orchestra and an 80-piece choir singing my music with me singing with them was a thrill.”
As Nash describes it, his concerts offer fans the opportunity to hear their favorites from his catalog, but there’s also an opportunity to learn, discover and become aware. Social and political commentary have long been a key element of the songwriting and Nash, as is the case with many of his fellow legendary peers, has never been shy about expressing his views in his music and unlike some songwriters that might hold back new songs for an album release, he has no problem with introducing a song onstage that is as fresh as the current headlines.
“One of the things that the fans of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young realize is that they will hear some of the songs that they paid good money to buy a ticket to come and see us,” he says. “You know, they want to hear ‘Guinnevere,’ they want to hear ‘Our House’ and ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,’ etc. But they also know that they’re going to probably hear a song that was written that morning. In one particular case of ‘Watch Out For The Wind,’ which I did with the orchestra, that was the case indeed. My friend, Shane Fontayne, who is the second guitar player in the Crosby, Stills & Nash band, one day woke up to the story of Michael Brown being shot dead by the white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri and had to write a song about it and David [Crosby] and Stephen [Stills] had never heard the song.”
“The point about ‘Burning For the Buddha’ [another newer song that Nash played during his CYO performance] is that quite frankly when David, Stephen and Neil [Young] and I were doing all of those anti-war Vietnam war benefits many, many years ago, the one image that was prevalent there was of a monk that had burned himself to death in protest of the war,” Nash continues. “And what we’ve got to realize is that in the last year and a half alone, over 130 Tibetan monks have burned themselves to death because of what’s been going on with the Chinese government and the Tibetan people. So we did those two songs with the orchestra. And it was a history lesson for those kids too. Because they wanted to know, what did I mean when I said we could change the world? Who was bound and gagged and chained? It was a history lesson for those kids and they loved it.”
The new songs that Nash has been playing in his live shows will finally find their way to an album that is due for release in 2016. Nash and Fontayne wrote 20 songs together in September and October of last year and went in to Village Recorders in Los Angeles to record them — as he points out, in the same studio where he and Crosby recorded their Wind on the Water
album in 1975. 40 years later, the mojo was still good in that room — he recorded those 20 songs in eight days for the forthcoming new album.
It’s those new songs that have Nash out on the road this summer, touring only with Fontayne accompanying him on guitar, as he continues to share his music with the people. In recent years, there have been Crosby and Nash tours and Crosby, Stills & Nash tours, depending on who is available. When it became clear that the other two had plans for this year, Nash made his own plans.
“I have so many new songs,” he says. “You know, I need to communicate. David and Stephen and I this year are completely booked up in terms of shows, so we’re not going into the studio this year. So what do you do with all of these things that are floating around in your head? I’m a communicator — I have to get out there and sing, so if me and David and Stephen aren’t doing it, I’ll do it.”
On the subject of a new Crosby, Stills & Nash album, he says, “It’s always on our agenda, but you know, it’s very difficult to get three guys that are busy as hell on the same page. But eventually we will get there.” One project that was in the works a few years ago was a covers album that was being overseen by Rick Rubin. The trio didn’t mesh well with Rubin and they eventually pulled back and went into Jackson Browne’s studio to take another crack at the concept. Nash says, “It’s still on deck. We have a lot of music to be making as soon as we get off the road.”
And that’s the thing, there’s always a lot of music happening when you talk with Graham Nash — in recent years, he was the person in charge who curated box sets that offered individual career overviews for Crosby and Stills, in addition to his own work.
“I think I might be the member of the band that thinks that what we did is reasonably important. I did it really for history,” he points out. “I didn’t do David’s box set for David, although I totally took it into account, of course. But I really did it for history. I wanted people to know, if they’re the least bit curious in a hundred years’ time, who David Crosby was or who Stephen Stills or Neil Young or Graham Nash, these pieces of music will at least be able to give them an indication of who we were.”
The recent CSNY 1974 box set pulls a lot of diamonds out of what had been a chaotic 1974 tour, but as the release itself reveals, the performances were gold. Nash put a lot of work into pulling together a cohesive document of the period, meticulously reviewing multi-track tapes of the nine shows that had been professionally recorded.
“Anything involving the four of us is complicated,” he says. “But I had a definite feeling that there was a great record to be made if I could dig deep enough and work hard enough on making it….one of the most difficult things was to take the eight or nine multi-track tapes from different halls and different sizes and different shapes and different acoustic environments and make you believe that you’re sitting at one concert. That was the most difficult technical thing that I had to face.”
Is it possible that fans might get to hear a similar release at some point that would take a look at another period of the group’s live work? Nash says it’s possible, but it might be a while before he puts something like that on his project list.
“If I was to think about it at all — and I’m not thinking about it, because it took me almost four years to do that CSNY ‘74 box set — so I’m kind of done with our music for a little while. But we did some interesting shows in the early ‘70s at the Fillmore East in New York and that might be an interesting project, because that was also filmed.”
He’s got a couple of things that are on his list presently, including an album that'll collect a good number of the guest appearances that he and David have made on other artists’ albums (including the title track to David Gilmour’s On An Island
album, which features their gorgeous harmony vocals surrounding the voice of the former Pink Floyd guitarist, to name one). He’s also working with producer Spencer Proffer on an album of acoustic versions of songs by Jimi Hendrix.
“We’re about five tracks into it and we’re getting very well-known people to do Jimi’s music acoustically and it’s fascinating,” Nash says. “I’ve known [Spencer] for many, many years. It’s an idea of his that he wanted to do and he asked me to help him and I did. I actually got Jason Mraz to sing ‘Angel,’ that Jimi wrote, and me and David are singing harmony with him and it’s beautiful. Grace Potter did ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ and it’s gorgeous. Heart did ‘Waterfall’ [and it’s] fantastic. It’s going to be a great album.”
Nash will be back in Cleveland at the Hard Rock Live and promises an evening of music that’s “going to go everywhere from songs I did with the Hollies to the song I wrote this morning.” We’ll cross our fingers that he has a productive morning on that day.
Graham Nash, 8 p.m. Friday, July 31, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $43.50-$62/50, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com.