As a key contributor in the iconic folk-rock groups Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Byrds, David Crosby had already etched his place in rock history by 1970. And yet, for someone who’s spent the better part of the last half-century addressing the past in some form or another, Crosby comes off as oddly unencumbered by his legacy these days. For proof, one need look no further than the veteran singer/songwriter’s first-ever live release under his own name, the new CD/DVD package Live at the Capitol Theatre, a 2018 document of The Lighthouse Band, which features Crosby alongside multi-instrumentalists Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis and Michael League.
Yes, Crosby dusted off a song titled “1974,” which sat unfinished for nearly 40 years until the rest of the band got its hands on it. And, yes, The Lighthouse Band does a rendition of “Woodstock,” the Joni Mitchell-penned CSN staple that, perhaps more than any other song, epitomizes the tenor of the Flower Power era. Nevertheless, what’s most immediately striking about Live at the Capitol Theatre is how utterly fresh and alive the music sounds. 78 at the time of the recording, Crosby (now 81) smiles frequently in the video, as if suspended weightless in the sheer joy of playing with this group of musicians, all of whom he dwarfs in age.
All four voices blend seamlessly within the historic Port Chester, N.Y. venue’s church-like acoustics, captured in a breathtaking mix that’s so clear you expect to hear a pin drop at any moment. With Crosby having helped set the bar for vocal harmonizing so long ago, it’s a marvel to hear The Lighthouse Band push harmony to new heights. In fact, as Live at the Capitol Theatre reveals in stunning detail, Crosby has turned out to be the consummate bandleader-as-team-player. League, Stevens and Willis, for example, all pitched-in on the writing to flesh “1974” out from its original demo form, and the instrumental mastery each brings to the table simply can’t be overstated.
Crosby may find himself digging through the past often, but he’s managed to prevent his artistry from fossilizing—thanks in no small part to his Lighthouse bandmates. Still as colorful, blunt and emphatic as ever, he spoke to Paste about the synergy between them.
Live at the Capitol Theatre was released three years almost to the day after the concert was recorded. How intentional was that?
David Crosby: I didn’t know it had been that long! I mean, we meant to have it out sooner, but I’ve been making a lot of records, and they’ll only put out one at a time. I have two bands—The Lighthouse Band, with Michael League producing, and another stream of records that I make with my son, James Raymond. We call that one Sky Trails, but it’s really just me and James and anybody we want. Between the two, I’ve been making a lot of records. And this one had to wait for my last studio album For Free to get out of the way. And it kept selling! Me personally, I would put ’em out a lot sooner [laughs].
Paste: What have you got in the works as far as more recent recordings with Michael, Michelle and Becca?
Crosby: Well, it just so happens that I have an entire studio album that I just finished with The Lighthouse Band—mixed, mastered, ready to release—and it’s better than anything else we’ve done. And I’m waiting to put it out until this live record gets out [laughs]. It’s tough getting the record company to do what I want.
Paste: Can you talk about that? Because you’ve certainly had your share of experience with labels.
Crosby: They’re well-intentioned people at BMG. They’re nice guys. All the way to the top, they’re all okay. They just move slowly. And when you hand them five records in four years, it’s a little more than they can handle. They’re doing what they can, but they’re big and weighty so it’s a difficult situation. Anyway, I have another one in the can ready to go, and we’ve already started another one past that.
Paste: You went decades between your first solo record and a second set of solo titles, and then you went another several decades after those. What do you attribute this recent outpouring of creativity to?
Crosby: Two things—first: during the previous period, I was making records with Graham [Nash], and occasionally with Graham and Stephen [Stills]. When I stopped doing that, I [ended up in] two writing situations. And I like recording, man! So I’m moving at the pace that seems perfectly natural to me. Everybody else is going, “Wait a minute, wait a minute! Slow down!” And I don’t feel that. Instead, I feel that I’m towards the end of my life and I would like to make all the music I possibly can while I can.
Paste: So you’re saying your creative flow hasn’t really increased, but that it only looks like it?
Crosby: Well, it has sort of increased because of the other factor, which is that I found out a while back—when I wrote “Wooden Ships” with Paul Kantner and Stephen Stills [in 1968]—that I can write with other people. Your head doesn’t fall off. It’s okay. Most of the writers I know are very, very territorial about it, man. They want all the credit and all the money. I don’t really care. And it turns out that, because I can have chemistry with other people, that’s extended my useful life as a writer by 10 years, probably. And it’s doubled my volume, which is a good thing. More music is good, man. We need music. Music’s a lifting force, and things are hard right now in the world.
Paste: You aren’t shy about writing with the members of this band or putting them out front—like when Becca sings lead on “Regina.” It’s very clear with this recording that there’s a rapport between you all—
Crosby: [Emphatically] Mm-hmm!
Paste: —and that you give them all room to shine, even when they’re not singing lead. A truly confident musician can share the spotlight. It’s what made one of your idols, Miles Davis, such a compelling listen over such a long period of time: because he kept finding new people to feature. I’m not comparing you to Miles Davis—
Crosby: But he was right! Miles was right. He was right to do that. And yes, I am doing that, and yes I’m doing it on purpose.
Paste: BMG released a quote from Becca with this new release, where she said she wasn’t very aware of your body of work before she started playing with you. She almost sounded “meh” about your whole legacy at first. She wasn’t in-awe, and didn’t even seem impressed.
Crosby: She probably wouldn’t be anyway. She’s a very impressive artist herself. The truth is, these aren’t people who are motivated by stardom or record sales. These are people who are motivated by art. And she knows she’s as good as I am. I think she is too—that’s why I’m in a band with her. So our relationship is very straight. I do treat them as equals; I do feature them; and I do give them the front when they deserve it. I think that’s the right way to go about this whole thing.
Paste: You tell me how correct this is: The vibe that comes across from the live recording is that you got to take part in the formation of a band at 75—a band that wasn’t weighed-down by the baggage of your history. You got to start an actual band.
Crosby: Yeah, and fresh. And it worked. But I didn’t really start it—I saw it. We got in a room together and there was a chemistry. And you could tell. When that happens right in front of you, you go for it. When you see it, man, you know it. And it’s irresistible to me. I could see plainly that all three of them can write and sing and play at a really, really really high level. But the main thing, though, is that when the four of us are together, there’s a friendship and a space to contribute that’s unmatched.
Paste: What would you say this band draws out of you that’s different from the other situations you’ve played in?
Crosby: Every chemistry is completely different and calls-up different stuff in you. With this one, there’s more acoustic music and classical jazz. There’s a lot of jazz influence.
Paste: Your first interactions with Michael League took place on Twitter. Could you talk about that?
Crosby: A really good bass-player friend of mine called me up and said, “Hey, there’s a bass-player site, and on that site there’s a band you’ve got to hear named Snarky Puppy.” And I loved them. I loved the writing—I mean, the composing was just excellent—and the band swung like crazy. You couldn’t hold still. So I started talking about them on Twitter. Michael saw that and got back to me and asked me if I would do a benefit, and I said yes. I went down to New Orleans, did the benefit, spent a week with him, and I fell in love with the guy. He’s just a terrific guy and a terrific writer. The minute he and I sat down to write, we wrote three songs in a row. So it was fated to happen, I think.
Paste: The Capitol Theatre appears to have top-notch acoustics.
Crosby: The acoustics are really good, but the vibe is really good. For some reason, the Capitol Theatre has been home to a lot of really good music.
Paste: Judging from the recording, it has the ambience of a hallowed space, but you just sparked a thought: you know how the more you cook on a cast-iron pan, the more it acquires flavor? I wonder if venues somehow soak-in or accrue some kind of musical residue.
Crosby: Yeah, some sort of patina of notes. I think they do. The Capitol Theatre and the Beacon in New York both have got music just pouring out of the walls.
Paste: You recorded on the final night of your 2018 dates. How risky was that?
Crosby: You know, we didn’t really think of it that way. We were feeling very confident. We’d done an entire tour, and it just kept getting better every night. So we felt like we were gonna nail it.
Paste: In your experience with different configurations of players, what happens to a band’s cohesion over the lifespan of a tour?
Crosby: It’s always a moving thing. It’s always either getting better or getting worse [laughs].
Paste: You’re obviously an avatar of ’60s counterculture and protest. There’s a temptation to look at all the volatility of the past couple of years and draw parallels between then and now. You’ve lived through both periods—how much are music and art equipped to help people put up a fight today?
Crosby: The equipment’s there, but too much of the motivation is in a different direction. Too much of the motivation is about trying to be a star, be known and be famous. To me, that’s misdirected energy.
Paste: You’ve talked about that before—the whole paradigm of today’s pop star being too self-absorbed.
Paste: But haven’t there always been people out for that?
Crosby: Yeah, but it’s a matter of how many and in what proportion. I think the proportion has shifted from when I was starting up. In the ’60s and ’70s, the proportion was very high in terms of idealism. Now it’s more “gimme” and “gotcha.”
Paste: And the whole infrastructure at that time seemed to support artistic development.
Crosby: Today, there are people who are famous just for being famous. Like the Kardashians—no talent, no skills, no nuthin’. To me, that’s really sick, stupid stuff.
Paste: At the same time, though, you’re not shy about expressing yourself on Twitter and getting into it with people.
Crosby: No, I have fun there, man. It’s fun! I think Twitter’s okay if you don’t take it too seriously.
Paste: You recently said that hip hop is “mostly very bad percussive poetry repeated loudly over someone else’s music,” and you cited Chance The Rapper as an exception—
Crosby: Well, I think he writes better than most [other rappers]. Most [hip hop], if you look at it as poetry on a page, is sub-standard. [Mock-boasting in a deep voice:] ‘Ay, wow, I’m cool. It’s not very good poetry, and also they’re very often doing it to a clip of somebody else’s music. So I don’t see anything impressive with any of that. I do think he and some others write very well, but I think they’re a very small percentage.
Paste: What was it that people were saying about your generation of musicians when you first started out? Because there was plenty of alarm.
Crosby: They were afraid we were talking about drugs, because drugs would definitely be the downfall of Western society [laughs]. And, oddly enough, we were!
Watch Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young from Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Oct. 4, 1973.
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