Rock and Roll Hall of Famer David Crosby plays Reno
It’s a bit of a mystery to David Crosby why his famous angelic voice is still smooth and sweet at 75, after a life packed with the sort of hard living one associates with, well, David Crosby.
But it’s no secret to this two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame why he’s in the midst of a creative songwriting surge that has yielded two solo albums in the past three years — with a third slated for release this spring.
Quitting Crosby, Stills & Nash — the band he’d been a member of since 1968 (that is, between intermittent breakups) — unleashed his muse.
“I quit CSN. It had gotten very, very unhappy, and there was no forward motion. And all of a sudden I got much happier,” Crosby said in a phone interview from his home outside Santa Barbara, California, in March.
“And when I’m happy, I write. And when I write, I make records. Three albums in two years. I pretty much have to say, that’s real ‘happy’ to me!”
New album to drop
The three albums include 2014’s “Croz” and 2016’s “Lighthouse” — each released on small record labels, and each which garnered positive reviews. Crosby’s new album, “Sky Trails,” should drop around May on the BMG label (a subsidiary of Sony), Crosby said. And when he brings his new touring band to the Silver Legacy Resort Grande Exposition Hall on April 29 — a stop on his eight-date “An Evening with David Crosby & Friends” tour this spring — much of the two-hour-plus set list will contain material from “Sky Trails,” he added.
The set list also will feature numbers from his work with Crosby, Stills & Nash, with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with Crosby & Nash, and from his other solo albums.
How to balance the new songs with the famous ones from his catalog that fans come to hear when they buy a concert ticket?
“That balance is a choice,” Crosby said. “And it’s a tough choice. My way of doing it is, there are some old songs that I will make an exception for — “Déjà vu,” “Guinnevere,” just a few. Generally, my shows have been mostly new material.”
Fortunately, his newer songs — performed as they are with virtuoso musicians behind him — have been well received, Crosby said. When he toured last year to support his minimalist “Lighthouse” album, his band included bassist Michael League of jazz-pop instrumental ensemble Snarky Puppy, New York-based jazz-pop singer-guitarist Becca Stevens, and Canadian keyboardist Michelle Willis.
“With the ‘Lighthouse’ band, in the first set we had only three things anybody had ever heard before,” Crosby said. “It went over spectacularly well. The stuff we did, we did extremely well, ‘he said modestly.’ And so the audience gave standing ovations repeatedly through the show, sometimes applauding in the middle of songs. So, I think we’ll probably do the same with this band.”
Crosby’s current four-piece backing band includes drummer Steve DiStanislao (who’s also kept the beat for CPR and CSN) and Estonian bassist Mai Agan. (“She’s a stunner, man. She’s probably one of the 10 best bass players I’ve ever heard in my life,” Crosby said.) The lineup is rounded out with Crosby’s two fellow members in Crosby, Pevar and Raymond — the jazz-rock group with whom Crosby has released two studio and two live albums on little labels. They are guitarist Jeff Pevar, and keyboardist James Raymond: Crosby’s biological son — fathered when the folk singer was a teenager — who was placed for adoption as an infant but who in adulthood discovered his identity and reunited with Crosby.
The set list may include a great deal of CPR numbers, Crosby said.
“There’s a lot of CPR material — which is some of the best stuff that James and I ever wrote, and which we would pretty much like people to hear,” he said. “There’s a ton of really good stuff there that we will do. We’ve got a huge book to pull from.”
They may play one or more Joni Mitchell-penned songs — such as a rearrangement of “Woodstock” (a song CSNY covered and turned into a counterculture anthem), “For Free” or “Amelia,” Crosby said.
One possible surprise — at least to those familiar with his past — is that Crosby’s singing voice remains in familiar fettle, to judge from its heavenly timbre on the pair of recent albums. Crosby deems it a mystery how his cords have survived so well.
“I’m completely baffled,” he said with a laugh. “I have no idea. It doesn’t make any sense! All those years I smoked pot, and then I did the hard drugs. I never was a drinker and I don’t smoke cigarettes. That might have to do with it. But it doesn’t make any sense that at this stage of the game, I’d sound like I was 25.”
At 75 (he turns 76 on Aug. 14), Crosby remains instantly recognizable to rock fans by his leonine locks, walrus mustache and bushy sideburns. Though his hair is hoary now, his thick arched brows retain a trace of black.
His musical legacy, meanwhile, has long been secure.
Crosby earned rock-icon status back in the 1960s and early ’70s — both as a founding member of the seminal electric folk-rock band the Byrds, and the even folkier super-group Crosby, Stills & Nash. Both aggregations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Crosby’s contributions to the former included co-writing the Byrd’s signature psychedelic-tinged “Eight Miles High,” as well as co-writing “Why” and self-penning “Lady Friend” — two lesser hits. His sweet and soothing tenor on high background harmonies and his jazz-influenced rhythm guitar helped flesh out the quintet’s harmony-heavy sound, which merged folk with the melodious influences of the Beatles and other first-wave British Invasion bands. The Byrds fleetingly were a top-charting ’60s band with their rockified, No. 1 hit covers of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
He soon joined with two other singer-songwriters big in the countercultural folk-rock scene — Stephen Stills (from Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (the Hollies) — to form Crosby, Stills & Nash. Although Nash and Stills (and occasional fourth member, Neil Young) penned the band’s biggest hits, Crosby authored and sang lead on some of most famous tracks — including the structurally complex “Déjà Vu” and the anthemic “Almost Cut My Hair.” No stranger to songs conjuring up the zeitgeist of his times, Crosby’s tuneful and moody “Long Time Gone” on the trio’s 1969 debut self-titled album was a response to the assassination of Democratic presidential candidate frontrunner Robert Kennedy and the uncertainty of the period. The opening scenes of the concert film “Woodstock” features CSN’s performance of the song.
Folk rock has ever been at the core of Crosby’s music. In his youth, his sonic muse won out over an initial interest in pursuing acting as a career (his father was an Oscar-winning cinematographer). In the early 1960s, Crosby — possessed of an effortlessly pretty and pristine tenor, and a budding political consciousness despite growing up in wealth — moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village to make it as a folksinger. In 1963, back in L.A., he joined with Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke to form the Byrds.
After his firing from the Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash proved a brilliant second act for Crosby’s career. And since CSN’s early-’70s heyday, he has collaborated off and on with Stills and Nash, either as a trio or as a duo with Nash, although the relationships have been fraught with public feuding. Crosby also has plied the road of a solo artist. He released his solo album, “If Only I Could Remember My Name,” in 1971 to some critical acclaim. He dropped his fourth solo album, “Croz,” in 2014 on the small Blue Castle Records label; the jazz-tinged tracks laden with Crosby’s lyrical observations on aging and loving included guest appearances by the likes of Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler and virtuoso jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Crosby’s fifth solo set, “Lighthouse,” came out in 2016 on indie label GroundUP Music, and featured a minimalist sound — his voice full and clear in the mix over haunting acoustic guitars, subtle keyboards and Crosby’s characteristic stacked harmonies. “Lighthouse” earned a rave Rolling Stone review for its musical inventiveness, lyrical maturity and Crosby’s voice —which the reviewer opined “mostly sounds younger than his 75 years.”
The latter-day albums marked a comeback of sorts for Crosby, who weathered well-publicized rough times in the 1980s — including nine months in a Texas prison after convictions for weapons offenses and possession of heroin and cocaine. Legal woes are far behind him now, but at 75, his body bears the ravages of age and abuse. He’s contended with hepatitis C (which required a liver transplant in 1994 and is dormant), has Type 2 diabetes, and has five stents in his ticker after two heart attacks.
“My body’s actually been behaving itself pretty well,” Crosby said, saying he’s managing his diabetes thanks to diet and walking. “I’ve lost a ton of weight. I started at 240, I’m at 185 now. That helps tremendously with the diabetes. That helps tremendously with me. That helps tremendously with everything. It makes me feel a lot better.”
Crosby said he feels great on stage — especially satisfying his songwriting yen to share his new creations with audiences. “As songwriters, our favorite song is always the one we just finished,” he said. “I really love doing “Guinnevere.” It’s still a very moving song to me.”
As far as his arguably most popular song — “Almost Cut My Hair” — the odds are slim he’ll trot that one out on stage, Crosby said.
“It’s probably the most juvenile song I ever wrote. Y’know, if I feel like it, I’ll do it. I certainly could do it. I’ve got a lead guitar player there, and that’s what that’d take. But it’s not one of the ones I think is significant. I’d rather do ‘Rusty and Blue’ or ‘Dream for Him,’ more complex stuff, a little more significant stuff. I might do it, as a second encore. If the audience went completely bat (bleep), I might do it.”
That crowd reaction happens frequently now, he said.
“The feedback I get from people there at the gigs is they feel they’ve really been given their due. They really feel like they got a good show for the money. I think that’s probably true. We try really hard to do the music absolutely the best we humanly, possibly can. Every time.”