Stephen Stills – Carry On (box set) (review)

Stephen Stills – Carry On (box set) (Atlantic / Rhino / Warner Music Group) review

An unbelievably solid,  four-CD retrospective covering the long career of Stephen Stills

The last in a series of box sets covering the careers of Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Carry On sheds light on the immense and diverse talents of Stephen Stills.  Spanning more than 50 years, the set touches on all aspects of his musical history, from his early days in Buffalo Springfield, to his on-again/off-again relationship with Crosby, Nash (and sometimes Young), to his colorful solo career, featuring 82 tracks, 25 of them previously unreleased.

While the earlier sets for his two compadres were 3-disc affairs, the Stills’ collection takes up four – and it just makes sense. He was hands-down the most prolific of the trio – releasing eight solo albums, several live records, and two releases from his fantastic side project Manassas.  And, while Crosby & Nash were both arguably support players in their previous bands (the Byrds, and the Hollies respectively), Stills was the leader and primary songwriter in his band, Buffalo Springfield, which is also well-represented here.

The set begins rather humbly with a Stills’ solo acoustic performance from 1962, when only 17 years old:  “Travelin’” comes from a never-before released Voice of America broadcast when his family was living in Costa Rica.  The next track is from two years later.  “High Flyin’ Bird” is credited to the Au Go Go Singers, a nine-piece band also featuring future Buffalo Springfield cohort Richie Furay.  This song, despite a passionate Stills’ vocal, is hopelessly dated in it’s folk-rock cheesiness.

But then things start to really heat up.  The next eleven tracks spotlight Stills’ tenure with Buffalo Springfield.  It’s amazing the wide scope of material the band was capable of tackling: the mid-tempo folk-rock of “Sit Down I Think I Love You,” the countrified “Go and Say Goodbye,” the jazz-infused “Everydays,” the country psychedelia of “Bluebird,” and the Latin number “Uno Mundo” – Stills cast a wide net creatively.  Then, there was “For What It’s Worth,” one of the finest protest songs ever written.

There’s also early versions of songs that would be fused together with others – Buffalo Springfield’s “Questions” became “Carry On/Questions” from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Deja Vu, while “Forty Nine Reasons” was joined with another song to make “49 Bye Byes” from their debut album.

Crosby, Stills & Nash enter the picture in the middle of disc one.  Their impeccable harmonies still send chills on “Helplessly Hoping,” and the epic love poem “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”

Unreleased tracks from this period include a surprise performance of Crosby’s “The Lee Shore,” with Stills playing everything except the drums – one wonders what this could’ve sounded like with the other two’s harmony vocals.  There’s also new mixes of “4+20” and a rather different “Carry On/Questions.”

Disc two concentrates on Stills’ early solo career, beginning with the rare 45 single version of “Love the One You’re With.”  There are two tracks featuring his friend Jimi Hendrix – “Old Times, Good Times,” and “No Name Jam,” a previously unreleased track featuring searing solos from both guitarists.  Stills was capable of so many styles – from the piercing country blues of “Black Queen” to the buoyant pop of  “Marianne.”  His super group Manassas is rightfully well-documented with seven tracks – their sprawling double album is a high water mark in his career.

Rare material from this point is the excellent previously-unreleased solo track “Little Miss Bright Eyes,” and a live version of “Find the Cost of Freedom” from CSN&Y dating from 1971.

If there’s one thing that’s particularly frustrating, especially when you get through disc three, it’s the futility of bringing all four members of CSN&Y together.  Time and again, their names appear on Stills’ solo work – as in the fantastic “As I Come of Age.”  Yet, they could never play nice long enough for an entire record – “Black Coral” is one of many attempts at a second CSN&Y album – their vocals were later removed for the Stills-Young record.

Disc four has some interesting tracks as well – “50/50” features Jimmy Page, of all people, on guitar – if only they could remove the horribly-dated synth percussion!  There are actually four songs from the long out-of-print CSN album Allies.  Of note is the far-superior live version of “Dark Star,” and “War Games” – a song written for the Matthew Broderick movie of the same name, but rejected by the director.  While some of these tunes don’t stand up to his earlier work, there’s still quite a few keepers – “Haven’t We Lost Enough” is a killer acoustic CSN song from the otherwise-forgettable Live it Up album, while “Treetop Flyer,” a rebel anthem, is one of Stills‘ finest.  Of the unreleased material, “Welfare Blues,” from 1984 has some great Stills’ guitar-playing.

As with any compilation, there are songs that could’ve been included, but weren’t.  Oddly absent is “Wooden Ships,” a Stills’ song which Crosby tweaked a little (it was included on Crosby’s box, for some reason).  Also missing are several key CSN tracks – “Run From Tears,” and “Too Much Love to Hide,” plus “That Girl” (with CSN&Y) would’ve been nice additions.

What really makes Carry On stand out is its surprising diversity.  Not to take anything away from Crosby or Nash – but their box sets tire after awhile because both of them basically had one trick – Crosby’s was the woozy, other-worldly, while Nash’s was the cute confectionary kind.  Stills, by contrast, is all over the map.  Plus, he could play virtually any instrument – he’s credited with acoustic & electric guitar, piano, organ, bass, percussion, drums, congas, steel drums, sitar, vibraphone, clavinet, and banjo at various times throughout the set.

There’s also many famous names that show up on various tracks – besides Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Booker T Jones, Nils Lofgren, Jerry Garcia, Joe Lala, Ringo Starr, and even Herbie Hancock makes an appearance.

Amazing solid throughout, Carry On gives ample insight into the underrated genius that is Stephen Stills.  –Tony Peters