Fifty years after performing with the Byrds, David Crosby can still mesmerize an audience. Entering to a standing ovation, the iconic artist proceeded to command the the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater stage on Saturday with just a couple of acoustic guitars (masterfully played), a remarkably strong, distinctive voice, and a stream of memorable songs made even more vivid by their solo context.
Promising “weird songs and strange tunings,” he drew from his entire career – ranging from the vintage “Everybody’s Been Burned” (his first decent song with the Byrds he suggested) and the “love song” “Triad,” to two warmly received new songs from forthcoming albums.
Embellished with tales of their genesis, the many highlights included a stunning, a cappela “What Are Their Names,” from his brilliant debut solo release; a magnificent, unadorned “Déjà Vu;” a gorgeous “Guinevere;” “Laughing,” which he explained he composed as tribute to George Harrison; and the encore of “Cowboy Movie,” which he revealed detailed the first breakup of CSN&Y.
And of course there was political comment with barbs directed at Donald Trump, who Crosby called a “walking intelligence-free zone,” and a reminder of President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous warning in 1961 about the rise of the military-industrial complex.
After playing Hawaii, Crosby will head out on the road with his son James Raymond for an 18-date tour. His next album, “Lighthouse,” recorded with Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, will be released in October.
I just interviewed Crosby for The Maui News. “It’s fun to play in a band, but when you’re by yourself the words really count and you can take people on a voyage and you’re not fighting a lead guitar to get the words across,” he says. “You can work in more shadings and subtlety, and you’re not trying to wave at people from a stage that’s 100 yards away. I really like taking people on a voyage so it works really well for that.”
So is it a little challenging at all being in the spotlight by himself?
“Not really,” he answers. “I’m very comfortable and loose. I say whatever comes into my head. I tend to be kind of goofy. If you can make people laugh and break the fourth wall and talk to them, you can get them to come along with you and affect the emotionally.”
Along with playing favorites in concert, Crosby is very excited about some new songs he’s composed, with two albums projected for release.
The first one, “Lighthouse,” features a collaboration with Michael League, the founder of the brilliant, Grammy-winning jazz fusion band Snarky Puppy.
“They are really, really good,” he enthuses about the group. “A couple of their songs just nail me. I can listen to them a hundred times in a row. Michael is a really good guitar player, singer and lyricist. We had so much fun.”
Is it jazzier than his usual recordings?
“I’ve always been tilted in that direction,” he says. “Steely Dan was my favorite band, and I’ve listened to a lot of jazz. I like more complex chord structures, but this album is mostly acoustic guitar and vocals.”
Crosby discovered Snarky Puppy online explaining, “somebody told me you’ve got to hear them. I listened to them on YouTube and I wound up talking to Michael on the phone and I volunteered to be on their ‘Family Dinner’ benefit record. I spent a week in New Orleans with them and it was one of the best weeks I’ve ever had.”
One of Crosby’s powerful new songs he performs in concert, “Somebody Home,” is featured on Snarky Puppy’s recent live DVD/CD “Family Dinner – Volume Two,” and on the forthcoming “Lighthouse.” It’s kind of an apology to women, about men who are just focused on surface appearance, the wrapping as he calls it.
In a Rolling Stone interview League reported: “In my opinion, he’s (Crosby) writing the best music of his entire life right now.”
The second recording project teams him with his son James Raymond, who has played with his dad since the formation of the CPR band in the mid-‘90s. With CPR, Crosby created some of the finest compositions of his career.
“I’m about 8 songs into that one,” he reports. “Michael McDonald and I have a jazz ballad on there that we wrote together. It’s more of a full band record. If anything it’s jazzier than the one I did with the jazz guys. My son likes complex chord structures and unusual time signatures and unusual melodies the same as me.”
Along with his CS&N classics, his shows also draw from his solo albums, including his 1971 masterpiece “If Only I Could Remember My Name,” which was surprisingly singled out in the Vatican’s official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano in 2010 as one of the “Top 10 Pop Albums of All Time.”
“How did that happen,” he wonders laughing. “The next album on the list under me was a Pink Floyd record. I got an email from (Floyd’s) David Gilmour, saying, ‘damn it,’ which just cracked me up.”
Besides his inspired songs, Crosby has long been known for his dedication to social activism. His interest in the power of music to foster change led to his book and documentary “Stand and Be Counted.”
“I’ve had a fascination with music and activist right from encountering the Weavers and Odetta and people like that,” he explains. “It went from there to civil rights, women’s rights, human rights, anti-nukes, and anti-war. I’ve had these good examples like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez, people how really stood up for what they believed in and really put their lives on the line. Harry Belafonte walked with Dr. King in Selma and Montgomery with rifles in the bushes. It’s very inspiring. Human beings can be incredibly inspiring. One act of exemplary humanity can do so much good in terms of leading you to do what’s right.”
In the midst of our crazy presidential circus has he any pertinent thoughts?
“It’s very discouraging to see a clown like Trump being even considered for president,” he says. “To see a bigoted, misogynist is very discouraging. I was in Europe and Canada recently and they are looking at us aghast – how did you let this happen? It’s scary. I love this country, but it’s more of a corporatocracy now and they don’t have any conscience or principles, it’s just greed.”
Not one to hold back on his views Crosby delights in communicating with fans through his Twitter site. “I fool around on Twitter and Facebook and I’m starting on Instagram,” he says. “I like communicating with people.”
Reflecting on his current creative renaissance Crosby affirms: “I’m feeling good and loving writing. I don’t know why it’s happening this late in the game. I should have been dead already or at least hunched over a park bench, but I feel very alive.”