The unlikely rebirth of David Crosby 

One of rock's towering figures beats the odds again

click to enlarge David Crosby has to work to pay his rent, same as you

Henry Diltz

David Crosby has to work to pay his rent, same as you

Over the past four years, David Crosby, the two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee whose powerful, richly melodic voice powered hits by the Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the expanded Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, has been on a roll.

At a time when many artists would be happy to rest on their laurels and live off their classic hits, Crosby has made three albums in the last four years (Well, it's actually four albums, but we'll get to that in a bit), writing a plethora of new songs and working with Snarky Puppy's Michael League, and with his son, James Raymond, who doubles as keyboardist and producer.

In fact, Crosby has so much material that he's been able to divide it into themed albums. His Lighthouse project, a collaboration with League that was released in 2016, prominently features Crosby's delicate, fingerpicked acoustic guitar and gorgeous four-part harmonies reminiscent of his old CSNY days. The songs for his latest album, 2017's Sky Trails, were largely written during the Lighthouse sessions but held over because their shifting tempos, jazz-rock arrangements, and tougher electric sound seemed like the start of something different. But regardless of the different styles, none of these songs sound like the work of a 76-year-old man winding down his career.

"I'll tell you what I think is going on," Crosby says of his late-career renaissance. "I think it's two things: One, before I quit CSN (after a years-long, successful reunion, the three men have once again become estranged) we were unhappy with each other, and I didn't feel like it was a kind of environment where I wanted to bring a song in to the two of them. So, I had some songs saved up."

And those songs were helped along by a whole new cast of collaborators, which is where part two of Crosby's creative rebirth happened.

"When I quit, I went out and started working with other people who happened to be very young sort of jazz-influenced singer-songwriters," he says. "They're incredibly talented people, and what's happened is, I've been writing with them. And the other person always thinks of something you didn't. It widens your palette of colors; it widens the possibilities. And it seems to be working. It takes a lot of trust, but the results are terrific."

In addition to Raymond, those talented jazz-influenced musicians include his current touring band: Mai Agan on bass, Steve DiStanislao on drums, Jeff Pevar on guitar, and Michelle Willis on keyboards and vocals. It's an ensemble that has allowed Crosby's live show to constantly evolve.

"It changes every night because we've got so much stuff," Crosby says. "We go clear back to the Byrds, to CSN, CSNY, Crosby-Nash, my solo albums, and the occasional Joni Mitchell tune [Sky Trails includes a breathtaking cover of Mitchell's "Amelia"], plus four records' worth of solo new stuff."

That's right, Crosby and his band just might be playing a song or two from a just-completed new album, a return to the acoustic, vocal harmony-layered Lighthouse project.

"We just wrote and recorded another Lighthouse record in less than a month," he says. "So that's four records in four years."

As for Crosby's older songs, the band he's working with can experiment with them and resculpt them every night, so even though familiar warhorses like "Long Time Gone," "Déjà Vu," and "Wooden Ships" will probably be on the setlist, they might sound significantly different.

"They do evolve," Crosby says. "We don't try to do them note for note. It's not like the Eagles; we're not trying to play the album. We take chances with everything, all the time. The result is that sometimes we crash on our nose, but mostly you get a very fresh feel for just about everything, and you can count on the fact that we're totally involved, because we're partly improvising as we go."

Interestingly enough, though, jazz isn't the only thing Crosby's current band members have in common. The fluid, free-flowing song cycle on Sky Trails was partially inspired by the loose structure and free-form experimentation of his first solo album, 1971's If I Could Only Remember My Name.

"Both of the bands I'm in really loved that record," he says, "and they're both strongly influenced by it. One's an acoustic band that mostly does vocals, and one's an electric band that does full rock 'n' roll — but both of them love that record, so it's almost inevi- table that there will be some songs on that record in our show."

In a career marked by political songs, some of which were his biggest hits, Crosby is certainly no stranger to social commentary, and one of the standout songs on Sky Trails is "Capitol," a broadside aimed at the power-hungry, partisan corruption machine known as Congress.

"They come for the power, for the power they stay," Crosby sings, his voice bristling with anger. "They'll do anything to keep it that way."

In a sense, it's nice to know that one of the 1960s titans is still out there fighting the good fight. In another sense, as Crosby acknowledges, it kind of sucks that he still has to do it.

"I'd like to have worked all this shit out," he says. "But, unfortunately, we haven't, and there it is. Greed, ignorance, racism, stupidity — it's all still standing there looking at us."

So Crosby is writing more songs than ever, he's still a fiery political presence, and he's just finished a new album. It doesn't sound like he'll be slowing down anytime soon. And some of that is out of necessity, as he bluntly informed us at the end of our conversation.

"I can't afford to slow down," he says. "How it works now is, because of streaming, we don't make money off records anymore. Zero. So there went half my income. So instead of being able to slow down now, when I'm kind of old and it would be good, I can't, because I've got to pay the rent, same as you."

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