If you go see Crosby, Stills, & Nash perform next Tuesday, it's a virtual guarantee that you're going to hear hits like "Our House," "Guinevere," and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes."
What the audience may not expect, however, is a song written hours before the concert. That's exactly what happened at one stop on the first leg of their tour this summer. On a nightly basis, the trio of songwriters try to bring out new material to share with fans.
"Songs come at the strangest time, and you have to play them when you feel it," says Graham Nash. He's about to embark on the second of three summer 2014 tour segments, this time crisscrossing the Southeast throughout August. "We're playing a lot of new songs," he confirms. "Things couldn't be better. The audiences have been wild."
Most bands touring for over four decades fall back on the tried-and-tested material that veteran fans expect, with a few carefully polished rarities placed in the set to placate critics. That's not CSN's approach, according to Nash.
"Fuck polish," he exclaims at the notion of performing a finely tuned greatest hits show. "The thing that our audiences love is that we mean to be there. We want to be there. It's not like we're doing it because somebody needs the cash. We're musicians. We're communicators. We want to talk to people. We want to open their minds to new ideas. We want to make them fall in love, and we want to make them fucking pissed off, absolutely."
That's been CSN's modus operandi "from the word 'go,'" says Nash, dating back to their first collaboration harmonizing in Joni Mitchell's kitchen in 1968. Tunes like "Ohio" (courtesy of the 'sometimes Y' — Neil Young) are politically hard-hitting. And with Nash's 2011 song "Almost Gone," about the treatment of WikiLeaks informant Bradley Manning, CSN helped to define how music, politics, and culture could be finely interwoven to affect change.
Unlike much of their audience, CSN's left-leaning politics haven't been diluted by age. On a 2006 tour, Nash recalls how nearly a fifth of the audience walked out of a gig in Atlanta when they performed a song titled, "Let's Impeach the President." And in 2012, Fox News talking head Bill O'Reilly reviewed a CSN show and criticized their song about Manning, calling the group, "shadows of a time long gone."
Nash says that he's conscious of how audiences perceive his lyrics; he spent four years writing an elaborate song about religious disillusionment with "Cathedral." "When you're talking about something like peoples' religions, you've got to make sure every word is right," Nash explains.
Adding CSN's signature vocals to a song, however, comes easy. In a MOJO magazine cover story released last week, the phrase "alchemical blend of voices" is used to describe the band's singing. According to Nash, the group's three-part harmonies occur as naturally and effortlessly as they sound to listeners.
"It's all magic," says Nash as he explains how the band's songs emerge from a "column of air into different frequencies."
Over the last year, Nash found himself inspired again through his work on CSNY 1974, a multifaceted box set released in July and pulled from recordings of nine concerts from their explosive tour that summer.
"Some shows were indoors, some were outdoors, and they all had different echoes and ambiances and sonic environments. The most difficult job was to make it feel like you're sitting there on the tenth row right in the middle," says Nash of the audio mastering process, which marks the first time these official recordings have been released.
Even on that 1974 tour — their biggest ever — Nash says he stumbled upon recordings where he was relaying a new song's chords to the band as they performed it in front of 60,000 people. Likewise, the one-and-a-half minute "Goodbye Dick," a Neil Young song about Nixon, was included in the collection, despite only being performed once by the band.
CSN's willingness to take spontaneous risks is also evident throughout CSN 2012, a double-live album documenting their impromptu 2012 tour, which occurred after Neil Young cancelled a Buffalo Springfield reunion tour with Stephen Stills.
Throughout the recordings, the music is loose and alive — never canned or polished. That's the same spirit that Nash promises audiences will encounter in 2014.
"We are constantly creating," he emphasizes. "As long as we can sing, this band will be in business."