Though his bandmate Neil Young is more often fetishized for his contributions to Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, this set makes clear Stephen Stills’ creative depth — as a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and as a singer.
Featuring 82 tracks from across a 50-year span, with 21 from Stills’ on-going collaborations with David Crosby, Graham Nash and/or Young as well as 11 dating back to his time with Buffalo Springfield, the four-CD Carry On is set for release today via Rhino. Other highlights include 25 previously unreleased tracks; a 1970 collaboration with key influence Jimi Hendrix; remixes of moments like the title track (with a stunning new guitar aside) and of “Change Partners” (with its memorable contribution on pedal steel by Jerry Garcia); and live performances through to CSN’s most recent tour.
Even now, with all of it laid out on Carry On, it’s difficult to comprehend the leap that Stills makes from the timid folkie copycat on very early songs like “Travelin'” (recorded when he was just 17) to the vivid, brutal truth telling that surrounds “For What It’s Worth,” his breakout moment with Buffalo Springfield from just five years later. It would be the first, however, of many such leaps.
Rather than setting a template for his own muse, the military kid who never stayed in any place too long continued to follow his own roving muse. He remained a restless musical sojourner, a tireless troubadour who moved on to CSN and then to create a series of solo efforts that often bore little resemblance to anything that had come before.
Carry On, by pulling together all of Stills’ career highlights and situating them with pieces designed to give broader context, illuminates more fully these many paths. There has been, over time, nothing he couldn’t sing, nothing he wouldn’t take on. Eventually, Stills’ vast catalog came to embody Americana’s quivering melancholy and the rambunctious frivolity of Latin music, rock’s scalding anger and the carnal hunger of soul music.
You also hear anew with Carry On the way his narratives, and his voice, played every bit as important a role in Stills’ journey as did his rightly praised guitar work. In fact, I came in ready to praise the fleet, biting misery of his take on Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” the yearning emotional sweep of “Woodstock,” the controlled psychedelia of his wah wah on “Jet Set.” (And that’s to say nothing of his work on the the B-3 or on the bass, heard on literally dozens of songs here.)
But I kept coming back to the larger themes here, and how they allowed Stills to set depth charges to every successive set of expectations. Just when you thought he was an R&B stoked protest singer (“For What It’s Worth”), he’d reappear with an episodic, deeply personal narrative (“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”), then a Carribbean-flavored kiss off (“Love the One You’re With”), then a searching backwoods lament (“Southern Cross”). These, surely, are Still’s most famous songs, and had they been created by four separate artists, few would have been surprised.
Stills holds them together with a force of will that centers on his voice, both literally and figuratively, which in turn springs from his own complex story. Stills spent his vagabond youth amidst the blues-imbued shotgun shacks of Louisiana and the tumultuous rhythms of Central America. Some part of those cultures was in his sound almost from the beginning, and remains extant today. Carry On connects the dots.
Demos sprinkled throughout provide interesting glimpses into Stills’ creative process, threads that move through the whole collection. For instance, musical experiments found within an early take on “49 Reasons” later show up in full flight on “Pre-Road Downs.” The beginnings of “The Treasure” can be heard during sessions for Stephen Stills 2, some three years before its inclusion on the deeply underrated eponymous Manassas debut from 1972.
They complete this portrait of a restless figure, someone who helped kick open the door for country rock, for world music, for the singer-songwriter movement, for Latin rock — and somehow did so without drawing the rabid fanbase that followed his erstwhile co-hort Young. Maybe Carry On can finally right that wrong. If nothing else, however, it provides a road map for those who never knew just how far Stephen Stills has traveled.
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