Playing For Change

4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Demos" is the equivalent of hanging out with the Wright Brothers when Wilbur looked up at bird and said, "Hey Orville, I've got an idea," or when Booker T. Washington complained, "Now what am I gonna do with all these peanuts? It's history, kids, a musical blueprint for a generation.

Nash has been the group's diplomatic driving force since the 80s. Whenever there's been a reunion of the combative trio, Nash has been the catalyst, the peacemaker. (Getting Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt to play nice was an easier task.) Nash is also the group's archivist; he put together "Reflections (3 ½ out of 5 stars)," his own 3 CD career retrospective, earlier this year, and co-produced "Demos." It may be his pet project, but Nash remains a team player - he and Stills are well represented and even the elephant in the room (Neil Young) makes a cameo appearance.

"Demos" could just as easily been called "Demos unplugged." Each member produced his own songs, and in most cases they accompanied themselves on acoustic guitar. The 12 cuts are a mixture of songs destined to appear on the first CSN album in 1969, the 1970 follow-up, "Déjà Vu," or on one of the trio's early solo efforts. For folks who need something new, there's Stills' uncovered gem, "My Love Is a Gentle Thing."

Most of the demos are only a tweak or a time change away from the final version. Others, particularly Crosby's cuts, are noble embryonic efforts that ended up miles away from the original concept. The two cuts that ended up being most radically altered are Crosby's demos for "Almost Cut My Hair" and "Long Time Gone." "Almost Cut My Hair" still has Crosby's angry, kill the pigs rhetoric, but Crosby, all alone on acoustic, infuses the song with the same numbing, rambling jazz-folk shuffle beat that's hampered much of his solo work and makes his songs, however planned, sound as if they were conceived amidst a peyote induced revelation. (Crosby was influenced at an early age by jazz junkies Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. Unfortunately their detritus is reflected in his musings.) "Almost Cut My Hair" is the only poor performance, but the bare acoustic backing manages to show off Crosby's stunning vocal range. "Long Time Gone" is an example of Stills in his role as "Captain Many Hands." He plays guitar, bass and, surprise...drums! Stills doesn't have the subtlety of CSN's first percussionist, Dallas Taylor, but he's not a lifeless metronome either. Bashing the cymbals or double-smacking the snare, Stills lays the groundwork for the finished version's funky middle-finger attitude. Another interesting aside is the original second verse, which was rightfully deemed less compelling than the others and exorcised: "You can smell something burning, but you don't know who lit the fire. You can smell pavement getting hotter, you can see flames rise high."