in performance: stephen stills

stephen stills.

stephen stills.

“I was pretty worried at the beginning,” remarked a patron leaving the Brown Theatre last night in Louisville after a two-set, two-hour performance by veteran folk-rocker and guitarist Stephen Stills. Truth to tell, a lot of people were.

At the onset of a clumsy, oddly electric recasting of the 1969 Crosby, Stills & Nash classic Helplessly Hoping, which began the concert, Stills summoned little more than a tentative, distant and largely unintelligible warble for a singing voice. That set a grim tone for the evening, one that threatened to erase the renewed stage vigor that distinguished his 2013 performances in the region with the blues-rock troupe The Rides. But by the show’s second tune, the solo hit Change Partners, Stills was himself again. He was no pop-rock Caruso mind you, but the husky vocal resonance and the warm, acoustic cast were remarkably faithful to the song’s 1971 studio version.

Such is the curiosity of Stephen Stills. As the concert progressed, one got the sense that the years (the artist is now 70) have had less of an impact on his singing than his own performance temperament. In other words, Stills seemed to sing as well as he cared to.

For the rest of the first set, which consisted primarily of solo acoustic tunes, his voice was clear enough to convey a convincingly folkish mood, from a medley of Fred Neil songs (Everybody’s Talkin’ and The Dolphins) to Stills’ own dark double shot of Daylight Again and Find the Cost of Freedom to the evening’s biggest surprise, the country-ish title tune to his largely forgotten 1978 album, Thoroughfare Gap.

The feel extended into another unexpected entry, a sleek band reading of Graham Nash’s I Used to Be a King and a blast of pure nostalgia by way of Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. During the latter, Stills essentially counted on the crowd to supply harmonies (they did) while he capably hit the tune’s trademark high notes.

The second set let Stills loose on guitar, which remains his forte. In the heavier moments, like a set-closing take on Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World, his vocals were buried. In other instances, especially three works by The Rides (including Virtual World, a preview of the band’s upcoming second album), the singing sounded assured and perfectly in line with the sense of performance rejuvenation that made the band’s performances such a delight two years ago.

You practically forgot the blemishes when Stills cranked things up on guitar. Well, almost. There was bass heavy distortion through much of the second set. But Stills was undeterred, instigating a sly groove and tasteful jam in the middle of his 1968 Buffalo Springfield gem Bluebird. There, he reveled in the delights of his own performance world. Despite the potholes that peppered the rest of the show, the mood was infectious.

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