David Crosby and Friends review – the old Byrd is on fire and roaring

Palace theatre, Manchester
The counterculture veteran purrs as richly as his twentysomething self and rages about today’s police shootings in a revelatory concert

Not many musicians have had such colossal impact on popular music as David Crosby. As a founder member of the Rickenbacker-jangling the Byrds and the mega-selling folk rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the activist and countercultural icon’s influence stretches from the Eagles to the Smiths to the Stone Roses to Bon Iver.

He has also led a rather colourful life, most notoriously doing time after crashing a car that had cocaine and a pistol on board. As several audience members comment, few expected him to reach 77 at all, never mind be in such ebullient, lively form. The Californian apologises for Trump and explains that his band wore Canadian maple leaf emblems on the flight over “because Canadians are nice people”. When a guy at the back yells: “I love you David!”, Crosby grins and fires back: “I love it when you say that, but can you get your sister to shout it next time?” Apparently, the gruff male overtures remind him of prison.

His long day began hours earlier, when he pricked the cosy BBC Breakfast TV atmosphere with an irate rant about record company “thievery” (over streaming), before explaining that playing with younger “friends” had fired a creative renaissance of four albums in five years. Janet (written and sung by keyboard player Michelle Willis) is from forthcoming album Here If You Listen; the title track of 2017’s Sky Trails, “about being lost – but not geographically”, is beautifully pensive. “Touring is like having my own rocket ship,” he smiles. “I can go anywhere – and pick any song – I want.”

Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s 1974

His first set includes the title track of CSNY’s seminal Déjà Vu from 1969 and Long Time Gone, Crosby’s emotional response to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy the previous year. The five-piece, international, mixed gender band (including Crosby’s son James Raymond) render the four-part harmonies and jazzy folk-rock superbly. “If this were California, we’d go and smoke a joint, but here we’ll breathe some clean air”, says “Croz”, exiting for an interval, returning minus the woolly hat that he told breakfast telly was made by his wife. As the old pipes warm up, his singing is rich and revelatory: somehow, he can purr and roar like his twentysomething self.

He dips into a well of anecdotes to explain why 1982’s Delta is “difficult”. He was a “junkie”, but musician friend Jackson Browne refused to let him leave to score until he had finished the mesmeric song about “choice and chance”. By now, the crowd are on their feet. The white-haired old Byrd is on fire. With Jeff Pevar’s scintillating guitar runs, that group’s classic Eight Miles High is jazzier, perhaps closer to how Crosby and co-writers Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn intended it as a tribute to John Coltrane.

Almost Cut My Hair, Crosby’s signature countercultural anthem, is faster, with a dirtier riff and guitar duelling. As he alludes, the wave of police shootings of black people in America means that CSNY’s 1970s protest single Ohio – about the Kent State University killings of students by national guardsmen – is as relevant as ever. The audience sing the haunting “four dead in Ohio” refrain as Crosby angrily rages: “How many more? I wanna know why!” Then he humbly acknowledges the last standing ovation and walks away, with another entry for the bulging memory bank of a remarkable life.

• At Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 16 September.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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