Falling James' Gig of the Week: Buffalo Springfield at the Wiltern, 6/4
A few years ago, the notoriously forward-looking Neil Young was in a curiously sentimental mood, waxing nostalgic on his solo tune "Buffalo Springfield Again": "Used to play in a rock & roll band/But they broke up ... I'd like to see those guys again/and give it a shot/Maybe now we can show the world/what we've got." At the time, the song seemed more like a wistful fantasy than a real plan of action, but this weekend Young finally got his wish, reuniting with his old pals in a pair of concerts that were surprisingly vital and in the moment.
Saturday night's set at the Wiltern showed just how far Young has come since Buffalo Springfield broke up in 1968. Back then, bandleader Stephen Stills and co-lead singer Richie Furay convinced an insecure Young that his distinctively tremulous voice was too weird for pop success, and Young had to fight for the right to sing on his own songs. This time around, the reunion was as much Neil's show as anyone else's, although all three singers got roughly equal time in the spotlight.
The stage set evoked the backdrop of Young's solo tours, with a large wooden Indian statue mounted at stage right and a fancy Tiffany-style lamp hanging dramatically over the piano that Young or Stills occasionally used. Images of the Springfield's namesake steamroller bookended the logo, swimming across a sea of stars on the wall behind the band. Young's regular bassist, Rick Rosas, and drummer Joe Vitale filled in for the original rhythm section, bassist Bruce Palmer and drummer Dewey Martin, who died in 2004 and 2009, respectively. (The group's second bassist, Jim Messina, wasn't part of this reunion.)
Proof of Young's increased clout came very early in the set, during the opening song, "On the Way Home." Although Young wrote that gently hazy reverie, it was Furay who sang on the original recording. On Saturday, Furay and Young traded off on lead vocals and harmonized nicely with each other. It was an auspicious and promising beginning, especially given the band's contentious breakup and fitful attempts at reunions over the past four decades. (Buffalo Springfield did get together once before at a private party in 1986, but Young flaked out on a planned public reunion a few years later and decided not to take part in the group's induction ceremony at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.)
They cranked up the energy further on the next song, a solid, disciplined version of Stephen Stills' "Rock & Roll Woman." Stills -- whose control-freaky bossiness was frequently cited as a major reason Buffalo Springfield fell apart in the late 1960s -- was on his game Saturday night, playing and singing with far more focus than one would expect from his frustratingly inconsistent solo albums and reunions with Crosby, Stills & Nash. Wearing a dark blue short-sleeve shirt and a pair of black slacks, Stills appeared fit and impressively in shape for a 66-year-old man, as did fellow sexagenarians Young and Furay -- which was kind of ironic, given that band's management kept changing its mind about whether the press could take photos (ultimately, photographers were allowed in briefly but could only take shots from halfway across the theater, by the sound booth).
Employing a series of small vintage Fender amplifiers, the musicians were able to get a warm and occasionally overdriven sound without overwhelming the tall-ceilinged theater's echoing acoustics, which have often been a problem for amplified bands. Stills' simple, ringing country-rock licks artfully adorned the next song, "Burned," without stepping on Young's wryly resigned lyrics or Rosas' groovy bass line during the break.
"Rumors of our breakup have been greatly exaggerated," Young announced with pride to the sold-out crowd. By now, it was clear that the band members were having a good time and were sincerely happy to be playing together again. Seemingly delirious, Stills, Young and Furay couldn't stop chatting excitedly during the first real pause in the action, reminiscing about their glory days and hanging out at the old Ben Frank's on Sunset Boulevard.
"We're from the past!" Young declared, almost defiantly, decked out in a white hat, blue jeans and a brown fringed jacket. Throughout the concert, he acted as if the band had never really broken up and were only now getting around to making their big breakthrough. Young's enthusiasm was infectious, and his "weird" vocals were sweet and pure, especially on a relaxed and pretty version of "I Am a Child," which was brightened by his poignant harmonica solo.
Even Furay's vocals, which were pleasant but bland in Buffalo Springfield and his subsequent soft-country group Poco, sounded a little more soulfully weathered and burnished with the passage of time.
"We wrote this last week," Furay joked at the outset of "Kind Woman," which was distinguished by Stills' blurry acoustic-guitar strumming and Young's sparse roadhouse piano, which sparkled with the tinkling sounds of a sleepy creek. Buffalo Springfield's studio albums never really captured the intensity of Young and Stills' onstage guitar duels, but Saturday's reunion had plenty of pyrotechnics as the guitarists finished each other's solos with psychedelic extrapolations.
"Mr. Soul" was especially thrilling. Young explained that he wrote the song after coming home from the Whisky one evening, using one of those newly invented felt-tip Magic Markers. "I never saw one before," he marveled.
Young subconsciously lifted its sinister, spidery riff from the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," but, instead of making it a paean to rampant lust as Mick Jagger did, Young turned his lyrics inward, crafting a surreally paranoid warning about the cost of fame. When he sang, "Is it strange I should change?" (which turned out to be a prophetic description of his chameleonic solo career), Furay and Stills chimed in with those eerie "I don't know" rejoinders, which added another unsettling layer to this seemingly straightforward garage-rock nugget.
Young tore off some jagged solos on "Mr. Soul" that sounded like shrieking vultures, followed by Stills' exotic swirls of counterpoint. In general, Stills had the cleaner tone with more fluid soloing, while Young had a rawer sound with more bite and attack. There were moments when they manipulated their axes so that they sounded like backwards guitars.
Sometimes their solos would fuse seamlessly together, as if they were exchanging chunks of molten sunlight, such as on the extended jam on Stills' set-closing "Bluebird." As "Bluebird" built to an exhilarating climax, those shards of sunshine morphed into icily supersonic bolts of stellar light, as if Buffalo Springfield's antique steamroller had turned into a rocket and shot up straight into space.
The band returned for a well-deserved encore, starting ambitiously with "Broken Arrow," a multi-part epic that's more or less Buffalo Springfield's acid-countrified answer to the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" (a song that Young has frequently performed on recent solo tours). Vitale's drum rolls ushered in a wave of trippy sounds like a forgotten dream coming back to life, and the group (with Stills on piano) managed to connect the disparate pieces of this studio creation into a legitimate live tour de force.
The Springfield's biggest hit, the Vietnam-era anthem "For What It's Worth," was reworked into a funkier, slower arrangement, with Stills growling the lyrics like an old blues man, and the band coming to a literal stop when he chanted the word "stop." Young popped and pinged the little soap-bubble harmonics that float over the melody, which didn't feel as dated as one might expect a song about Sunset Strip police riots to sound these days.
Ghosts seemed to be everywhere. Opener Gillian Welch and her guitarist-partner, David Rawlings, were spotted wandering around the balcony bar during Buffalo Springfield's set, looking like Gram Parsons apparitions, gussied up in white Nudie's outfits with red stitching and gold trim and matching white cowboy hats.
Strangely enough, the quintet closed with one of Young's later solo classics, "Rockin' in the Free World," instead of an actual Buffalo Springfield song. This gave Young and Stills another chance to duke it out on guitar, and it was a suitably euphoric ending that seemed to indicate that Young had finally passed the audition and was very much a key member of this legendary band. The question is, are these reunion shows (including an upcoming set at Bonnaroo) merely a blast from the past or truly the start of this late-blooming group's midlife revival?