- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

Stephen Stills has just finished a phone conversation with Neil Young, who called to say he agrees with Mr. Stills’ assessment that the proposed set design for a summer CSN&Y; tour was “way over the top.” That call in turn was elicited by an e-mail Mr. Stills had composed and sent out at 2 a.m. the previous night.

“I can be very funny and cryptic at that hour when I’m arguing with my computer,” Mr. Stills chuckles.

It’s not surprising that he is burning midnight oil these days, given all he has on his plate. In addition to planning the summer CSN&Y; tour, Mr. Stills has embarked on a spring solo tour (he plays a sold-out show tomorrow night at the Birchmere). He is riding a wave of rave reviews for his latest solo album, “Man Alive!” And as if all that’s not enough to keep him busy, the 60-year-old music legend has a new baby son (by his third wife).

Mr. Stills — a long-standing member of the Democratic National Committee — seems surprised to be doing a phone interview with a newspaper that has a conservative editorial stance.

“I’m just surprised that I’m talking to The Washington Times,” he says, “but I guess even neocons like music.”

From his days as leader of folk rockers (and country rock precursors) Buffalo Springfield in the 1960s to his superstardom with Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young) and his criminally neglected work with Manassas, Mr. Stills has been one of America’s great rock music artists. However, it appeared that he had permanently shelved his solo career, not having released a record under the “Stills” name in 13 years.

It’s not that he’s been dormant all this time. Rather, it is that songs he intended for a solo album kept getting hijacked by his band mates for CS&N; and CSN&Y; albums.

Despite the long wait, he is happy with the result.

“This is the first album for many, many years — going back to the ‘70s — which I can listen to all the way through and not cringe” at anything, he says.

Well, almost anything: He could have done with fewer overdubs. But that will be rectified on the solo tour, when those songs will be performed “in their more natural state,” he promises. Mr. Stills explains that he will be doing about 45 minutes solo and will be open to audience requests during that set, then will do 55 minutes with his backing quartet.

The new album is a musical smorgasbord, reminiscent of the first Manassas album, with Cajun, Latin, rock, gospel, blues, country and reggae. Mr. Stills says much of his musical eclecticism comes from having spent some of his formative years in Latin America.

“In high school, I had salsa on the radio instead of the earliest Beatles,” he recalls. “I was a drummer in the school band. Drums first, then piano lessons and then guitar. Rhythm has always been my thing.

“I didn’t really ever fully develop my facility [on electric guitar] because I had spent so much time on acoustic guitar in those formative years. I just got good in my 40s. That’s probably a good thing, ‘cause I haven’t played it to death.”

The guitar playing is ferocious on the new album’s “Driving Thunder” and “Round the Bend.” The latter tells the story of how Mr. Stills met Neil Young (who also plays guitar on it) in Thunder Bay, Ontario. “I was on a folk tour, sort of flopping around,” he says. “We ran into each other, and I immediately fell in love with what he was doing. It was what I wanted to do, which was folk songs with electric guitars.”

Asked whether older vocal cords can actually be an asset in blues, Mr. Stills says it’s a little more complex than that, citing some valuable and prophetic advice he got from one of America’s great crooners.

“I once got stuck waiting for Clinton at a political event — it was just me and Tony Bennett,” he remembers. “We sat and talked about singing for about an hour. I asked him straight up, ‘Does [singing] change at about 45 or 50?’ He said, ‘Absolutely. At about 50 you get a lot of range and control you never knew you had, but don’t be afraid to lower the keys to get into your comfort zones, cause that is going to change.’ So I may have lowered a few things maybe a step, but for the most part I have more control in a broader range. I know how to breathe to get the high hard ones — the fast balls.”

His voice isn’t the only thing that is maturing. Acknowledging that his audience today tends to be more politically diverse than in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Mr. Stills says: “I personally am somewhat more moderate. I’m not a lunatic lefty, let’s put it that way. … I have a lot of Republican friends.”

Despite being ready to perform some new antiwar songs on the CSN&Y; tour this summer (which comes to Nissan Pavilion in August), Mr. Stills says he is pro-veteran. “I’ve gone out on several USO tours, and one of the most thrilling moments of my life was when the carrier group commander took me up on the radar deck so we could have a cigar,” he says. “He put his arm around me and said, ‘You have no idea what it means for you to be on my boat because when I was a was flying missions in Vietnam, we were starting to wonder what … we were doing.’”

Mr. Stills’ “Daylight Again,” from the 1982 CS&N; album of the same name, is a tribute to fallen soldiers. “It talks about the price paid by the people willing to keep us safe and who have given their lives so we can enjoy the freedoms that we have,” he says. “I had been down to U.Va. doing some research on John Singleton Mosby [a Confederate cavalry commander], to see if there was a story there. Apparently he loved black musicians and wasn’t a slaver. But he couldn’t abide being told what to do, and he did a great job of protecting the Shenandoah Valley for years.”

At the top of Mr. Stills’ musical “wish list” is the desire to score a film. “I want to score it minimalist,” he says, “but it’s a hard field to get into. They feel if you haven’t done a soundtrack, then you don’t know how to do it.”

He would also like to perform his music with a symphony, probably on acoustic guitar, or “play with a real accomplished big band.” He also regrets that despite all of his political work over the years, he’s never played at the White House — “except in the back yard at a birthday party.” (Let’s hope the birthday boy or girl is not a reader of this paper.)

“The human heart has a wide range of emotions, and music is a way to work your way through them,” says Mr. Stills, reflecting on a body of work that has run the gamut from the personal to the political and everything in between. “It saves hundreds of thousands of dollars in therapy,” he adds with a laugh.

“I am a chronicler,” he says. “Sometimes I will editorialize, sometimes vociferously. But sometimes it’s called for. That’s why the Constitution reads the way it does. I haven’t misspoken yet, I don’t think. But I’ve written a couple of really stupid love songs.”

Not all of his best work is political or social commentary. “Sometimes it’s like, ‘Let’s just turn down the meaning and rock,’ ” he says. “This doesn’t have to mean anything — it’s just fun to sing this particular batch of words together. That’s Jimmy Buffet man, and a lot of other people. Country songs with trains and beer and cars and trucks. That’s all right, too.”

Yes, it’s good to know that sometimes even old liberals just want to rock.

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