Ed Vulliamy writes: The French have an expression: on prend de la bouteille – literally, to drink from the bottle, but it can mean something different and more, especially when sent as a pun on birthday invitations. It can mean that we age like the best wine, improve with time.
This is happening to some of our finest musicians. Why should I be surprised that Leonard Cohen was even more poignant to hear in the unfriendly O2 in 2008 than he was in the more natural surroundings of the Isle of Wight festival in 1970? Why should not Joan Baez’s remarkable residency at the Olympia in Paris recently be every bit as moving as her appearances at the same festival and a benefit for Vietnam draft resisters in Chicago the following year? Baez sang deeper and darker in 2018, more than ever entwining, as she does, sincerity and grace. Why should not the Joshua Tree’s thirtieth anniversary tour out-power even the album’s debut? Why should not John Cale’s solo work, as he passes the age of seventy-five, be more restlessly innovative than anything he recorded with the Velvet Underground?
All this certainly applies to one of the greatest singer-songwriters of his generation, heading for Dublin, who is playing in the National Concert Hall tonight (July 31st): Graham Nash. The man who broke away from the Hollies and – as one song puts it – left the “cold rain” of Manchester for Los Angeles to live, famously, with Joni Mitchell in “Our House” (two cats in the yard) and team up with Crosby, Stills and Young to form the first and greatest super-group.
Those were, as another song by Nash calls them, “golden days”, and we all know that. But the tour he brings to Ireland, accompanied by Shane Fontayne on guitars and Todd Caldwell on keyboards – and, importantly, both on vocals ‑ really is like a vintage Clos St Denis you bought in 1969 and laid down to drink in its prime ‑ now.
These concerts have played through Italy and Germany and across the UK, touching down in Nash’s native Salford for the first time since he left England for California. And – I say this after having seen and heard him play countless times over five decades ‑ they are a revelation. And not just because Nash’s songs and the message they bring are like shafts of sunlight into dark times, which they are.
I completed a book to be published in September, about music, war and peace –a kind of musical memoir of life during which war was my work and music my great love. It reaches a fairly desolate place in the penultimate chapter I would not impose on the reader by way of dénouement, which I therefore hand over to someone else, whose music and essence resist stasis. This is Nash – for an epilogue entitled “We Can Change The World”, a line from his great song “Chicago”. The ensuing interview brings not only the book but my life full circle: it was Nash’s pleading in that song: “Won’t you please come to Chicago / No one else can take your place” that I took personally aged sixteen in 1970 – I saved up £67 for the fare and went.
Nash says now: “I have to believe we can change the world, and that music can be a driving force to that end.” And of course, the main reason for going to hear Graham Nash in the first place is that he is among very few to retain that faith; absolute integrity, in times when, as he observes: “we’re losing a lot of people among the musicians and songwriters who want to talk, communicate this stuff. Nowadays, the music industry throws any shit against the wall that happens to stick.”
So we can be gratefully assured of that rare probity and veracity of a Nash performance – he always cared, and he still does. His rage at Donald Trump is appositely incorporated into “Chicago”. “‘Teach Your Children’,” he says, “started out totally simple, about looking after kids on the road, and ends up being about the future of us all.”
The extra cogency is in something else. What distinguishes these recent concerts even from their predecessors is the raw intensity and poetic honesty of Nash’s communication of his lyrics and music. His songs have always been confessional, deeply personal as well as politically didactic. But now, sung in a deepened, oaken voice and more pensive timbre, they have an intimacy more direct, more devotedly attentive than ever.
In the book, Nash says that “when an audience sings ‘Chicago’ and ‘Teach Your Children’ like they do, it’s moving, it’s primitive, i’s primal chant. We’re all together at that point.” But the impact of this tour is that his more personal songs are delivered as though individually to each and every member of the audience – a quattro occhi ‑ as the Italians say, eye to eye.
Nash wrote a song that goes: “A man’s a man who looks a man right between the eyes”, and that is what he does from the stage. He himself knows this. “Sometimes,” he says, “when I’m singing to an audience, a feeling comes back that is real passion, real love, real yearning. There’s a conversation with the audience; during an entire show, whatever energy I give out comes back from the audience, there’s a cycle of giving and taking, emptying and filling. And with just Shane, that emptying and filling cycle is that much more intense, really communicating with people. I can see into their eyes, and they can see into ours.”
Of course this is more feasible in smaller theatres than those CS&N used to play in, but it is still a remarkable and even unnerving experience – he stares his audience down ‑ mindful, regardful ‑ so that each song becomes at once a personal conversation as well as a collective experience, in a new and engrossing way.
This could be because Nash is getting older, as are many in his audience – and his muses. In 1969, “Our House”– “I’ll light the fire / You put the flowers in the vase” ‑ was a charming hearthside love song at a time when domesticity was hardly a hallmark of rock and roll. On this tour, though, Nash introduces the piece with news, that “Joni suffered a brain aneurism” recently, was a while at home before she was found, and that “we’re lucky to have her still alive. Joni’s back.” The song, accordingly, began at slow tempo, Nash’s voice joyful at the bliss in “our house”, but down the years; Fontayne’s low notes like a rip-tide beneath them, the song wearing its half-century.
Anno Domini apart, there’s a purely musical alchemy at work too. The first time I heard this newly intensified immediacy was soon after two mighty concerts in London and Paris by the full CS&N band – including Shane Fontayne ‑ two years ago. Some months later came a performance at the Cigale Theatre in Paris ‑ Nash accompanied only by Fontayne. The latter concert formed part of a tour to promote a new collection of songs called “This Path Tonight”, and was more enthralling than that by the full, gale-force band. The new songs were pensive, reflective, shot through with doubt, sometimes foreboding – and the paring down of sound from the expansive musical horizons of CS&N to Fontayne’s hugely creative accompaniment made less so much more. That was 2016, this is now – and even more so.
The evening on this tour falls in two sets: one song in the second is “Myself At Last” ‑ about Nash having lost himself during the crazy days, but now found thanks to the song’s dedicatee, his fiancée, the photographer Amy Grantham. But Nash has found himself musically too.
By definition, he has played with the best: Crosby, Stills and Young. But this was always a collective, and as Nash’s memoir Wild Tales recounts, often a battle of egos.
Fontayne – who is also English, and also escaped young to America ‑ defies definition. He is more than a session man – a quintessential musician and accompanist par excellence in the way that Gerald Moore was to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, or Robbie Roberston to Bob Dylan. He was Bruce Springsteen’s partner of choice for two years and is certainly the only guitarist to play “Stairway to Heaven” to an audience including a visibly moved Jimmy Page grinning like a Cheshire cat and Robert Plant with a tear in his eye (President Barack Obama too, at a Led Zeppelin tribute event in Washington DC).
Nash reports that Fontayne “always supports the song”, which he does entirely. His technique and range of sound effects on this tour elevates such songs as Nash’s glorious, heartfelt homily to the great whale, “Wind on the Water”, and drives the “Marrakesh Express” along its tracks. His sonority enhances Nash’s song to articulate their sentiments afresh, be they the heavy-hearted rage in “Military Madness”, the existential ruminations of “I Used to be a King” or the layered spiritual meditations – and panic ‑ in “Cathedral”. And not just Nash’s songs: part one ends with the apparently audacious idea to cover The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life”, as recorded on Sgt. Pepper by a full, distorted orchestra. It works: thanks to Fontayne’s reworking of George Martin’s vision on a single guitar.
Todd Caldwell has for many years been the throb on keyboards beneath Crosby Stills & Nash, but plays further forward as part of a trio, never fanciful, always effective. He plays the full four octaves of his signature Hammond, as often at its high and low ends as through the middle ‑ sometimes eerie, sometimes an undertow – “I leave melody to the other guys,” he says.
And there’s another thing: Nash once told me that what he missed most about working with Crosby and Stills was the inimitable thrill of singing three-part harmony. He need do so no longer: this trio has manifestly worked and worked on vocals so that it is far from Nash plus two, rather a radiant polyphonic threesome. If tickets remain for tonight’s concert at the National Concert Hall, my advice is to get along and savour every musical drop, de la bouteille.
When Words Fail: A Life with Music, War and Peace by Ed Vulliamy is published by Granta on September 6th.