Stephen Stills – Live at Berkeley 1971 (review)

Stephen Stills – Live At Berkeley 1971 (Omnivore Recordings)

previously unreleased live recordings from the peak of his powers

“Stephen Stills is an unyielding force of nature”

So begins the liner notes to a brand-new, never-before-heard concert from Stephen Stills and it’s hard to argue with those accolades.  These recordings find Stills, arguably the most talented third of Crosby, Stills and Nash embarking on his first-ever solo tour with the Memphis horns.  

While the word “underrated” gets thrown around a lot with many people, it’s pure truth with Stills.  Very few artists had his vision and ability to pull off so many different kinds of music.

The set leads off with “Love the One You’re With,” which, at the time, had just climbed up the charts and given the artist his biggest solo hit.  It’s missing the great harmonies of the studio version, but it’s played with a joyful abandon.  

Things quickly turn somber with “Do For the Other,” which features the additional guitar and vocals of Steve Fromholz.  “Jesus Gave Love Away For Free” exudes a cowboy, campfire feel.  

A big surprise is the guest appearance of David Crosby – he adds his unique harmony to the CSN track “You Don’t Have to Cry,” while Fromholz steps into the shoes of Nash and does an amicable job on vocals.  I love the interplay here between the two guitars. 

Crosby then takes the lead on his composition, “The Lee Shore,” one of those songs that got played a great deal in concert, but never got an official release on any of their albums.  This is one of the most focused versions I’ve ever heard – Crosby sounds engaged – perhaps because he’s not playing guitar (to my ears, it doesn’t sound like it), he can concentrate on just singing.  

As Crosby leaves the stage, Stills gets political on “Word Game” – a totally solo piece for him, in which he shows off his unbelievable acoustic guitar prowess.  Then he switches to piano for “Sugar Babe,” and he sounds like a completely different singer; gruff, soulful.  His vocals are fabulous here.  

He stays on piano for a stripped-down version of “49 Bye Byes” coupled with a rousing, crowd clapping “For What it’s Worth,” from his old band, Buffalo Springfield.

Stills gets down to the blues with “Black Queen” and really shows off more fantastic finger work on the (National) guitar.  He switches to banjo on “Know You’ve Got to Run.”  

The full band joins in as he slips to the organ for “Bluebird Revisited.”   He does a song called “Lean on Me” which is actually not the Bill Withers’ tune (even though Stills played with the soul singer on his debut album).  There’s a jazz-infused number called “Cherokee,” which has a similar riff to the Moody Blues’ song “Story in Your Eyes.”   The extended piece features flute, sax, trumpet, and a fine Stills’ electric guitar solo.  The show ends with the horn-driven, rousing “Ecology Song.”  

Stephen Stills, the individual, tends to get overshadowed by his more famous partnership with CSN&Y.  Yet, it’s not an overstatement to list him as one of the most talented artists of the rock era.  Live at Berkeley 1971 is proof that Stills deserves more credit.  —Tony Peters