By GARY GRAFF
Of the Oakland Press
AUBURN HILLS - War. A stuttering economy. Rising unemployment. An embattled president. A deep ideological divide in the country.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young know all about it. That was the situation in the late '60s and the early '70s, when the well-pedigreed quartet reigned as one of rock's most celebrated supergroups. Sadly, it's also the situation now, which has led CSNY to re-embrace its role as creators of thoughtful and passionate protest music on its Freedom of Speech '06 tour, which stopped Thursday night before a crowd of about 13,000 at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
There was no doubting CSNY's agenda during its 33-song, three-hour-plus (including intermission) show. The lynch pin of the tour is Neil Young's latest release, "Living With War," a plainly worded topical song cycle that calls for, among other things, the impeachment of President George W. Bush. But this is hardly new terrain for the group, as the seven songs from Young's album, which fit easily into the CSNY group sound, were surrounded older fare such as "Wooden Ships," "Military Madness" (with a new Bush reference added by Graham Nash), "Immigration Man," "Find the Cost of Freedom," "Chicago," Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and "Ohio" - all decades old and all of which sounded disturbingly current in the context of Thursday's show.
It was an intelligent discourse, however, with a minimum of sloganeering and a focus on the human costs of these issues, employing video images to hammer in particular points. As CSNY sang, a capella, in David Crosby's "What Are Their Names," "peace is not an awful lot to ask."
That sense of mission made the group's performance that much more urgent - and excellent. It's worth noting that CSNY's last two visits to the Palace, in 2000 and 2002, were the first of the respective tours, given to both opening foibles and excitement. Thursday's concert caught them with eight weeks under their belts and - presumably - the kinks worked out. It certainly sounded like it; the vocals in particular were tight and adjusted to the group members' advanced ages, with some songs pitched deeper and unison arrangements replacing harmonies in other cases.
The instrumental end was also in fine form, with a strong rhythm section allowing Young and Stephen Stills a solid foundation for their guitar dialogues on "Wooden Ships," "Long Time Gone," "Almost Cut My Hair" and "Deja Vu." Nash, meanwhile, shined on harmonica during the rootsy "Southbound Train." The group moved from an electric first half to a protracted acoustic opening to the second part of the show which contained several of the evening's highlights. Crosby and Nash backed Young on a delicate rendition of "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" and nailed the demanding harmonies of "Guinnevere." Stills and Young picked up a storm on the former's "Treetop Flyer," while the quartet's rendition of Crosby's "Carry Me" lived up to Young's introduction of it as "a song of transcendence." And "Our House" and "Teach Your Children" remained crowd-pleasing singalongs that nevertheless gained poignancy in the charged context of the rest of the show.
CSNY's prevailing point was that the cost of freedom was high and required due diligence from those who seek it, regardless of their political affiliation. But, that said, there was no reason not to be "Rockin' in the Free World" - as CSNY did at the end of Thursday's show, celebrating but also calling its audience to arms for the struggle that remains.