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Hamptons Life

May 21, 2018 12:57 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Supergroup Crosby, Stills And Nash Has Sag Harbor Roots

David Crosby will play at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, June 9.  ANNA WEBBER
May 21, 2018 1:51 PM

Back in the late 1960s, the West Coast was the epicenter of the counterculture movement. That’s where musicians like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and bands like The Mamas and the Papas and The Byrds found a foothold, using their music as the message in speaking to a generation of disenfranchised youth eager for change.

But did you know that a bit of that legendary late-1960s California music energy also found its way to the East End?

The story goes something like this:

In the winter of 1968-69, musicians David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash came to Sag Harbor at the behest of their friend John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful. The trio were coming from their respective bands—Crosby from The Byrds, Stills from Buffalo Springfield, and Nash from the British band The Hollies—and joining forces with the express purpose of creating an album of new music all their own.

Sebastian, who was living in Sag Harbor at the time, felt getting away from California’s frenetic scene and coming to a quiet seaside town in the off-season would do them—and the music—some good.

So Crosby, Stills and Nash came east and spent that winter in a rented house in Sag Harbor, writing and rehearsing the songs that became their debut CSN album. We’re talking legendary songs like “Long Time Gone,” “Helplessly Hoping” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” which was composed in honor of singer Judy Collins, one of their visitors to Sag Harbor.

At least, that’s the way the story goes.

“It’s all true,” David Crosby confirmed when asked about the story during a recent phone interview. “It was an A-frame house out there somewhere. Stephen and I and Graham put the first record together there.

“It was a very good thing and obviously, it worked out well,” Mr. Crosby added. “What I remember is, it was freezing cold. We didn’t do anything except stay in the house, get takeout and play all winter.”

So, does Mr. Crosby think he could find the location of that house today?

“Absolutely not,” he admitted. “All I know is it was an A-frame, and it wasn’t on the water.”

Though Mr. Crosby may not be able to find the Sag Harbor house where he spent that long ago winter, he will be finding his way to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, June 9, where he will perform in concert.

But don’t expect him to be sharing the stage with his old bandmates—Crosby, Stills and Nash split unhappily, and possibly for good, after their 2015 tour. Instead, Mr. Crosby will come to WHBPAC with his Sky Trails Band, which includes his son James Raymond on keyboards and vocals, Jeff Pevar on guitar and vocals, Mai Agan on bass, Stevie D on drums, and Michelle Willis on keyboards and vocals.

These are the names of just some of the new collaborators with whom Mr. Crosby has been working in recent years—a period that has been highly productive for him. Since 2014, he has released three albums: “Croz” (January 2014), “Lighthouse” (October 2016) and “Sky Trails” (July 2017).

When asked to explain where this creative energy is coming from, Mr. Crosby replied, “It’s a couple things. I had a head of steam built up as we got toward the end of CSN. It was a very unfriendly, unhappy parting. I would’ve brought new songs to them. I had them building up on paper and tape, and nowhere to take them.

“The second thing is, Michael League, who is the bass player in Snarky Puppy—a terrible name for a great band—I met him, and he introduced me to Michelle Willis from Canada and Becca Stevens from North Carolina,” Mr. Crosby added. “We sang together on a benefit record and decided we really liked that and wanted to do acoustic instruments and multiple vocals. We called the band Lighthouse, and it worked.”

While Lighthouse, both the band and the album, was designed as a “conspicuously and deliberately acoustic” project, as Mr. Crosby puts it, “Sky Trails” is a more instrumentally focused, with jazz-inspired influences throughout.

It turns out that jazz is a genre that has interested Mr. Crosby for a long time.

“A very long time,” he confirmed. “My brother turned me on to it—people like Jerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck in the 1950s, and they led me to Coltrane and Miles. I went through the normal progression. I listened to Weather Report a lot. Jazz has influenced me, especially with chord changes and melodies.”

Of course, it’s the haunting and complex vocal harmonies that have truly defined Mr. Crosby’s musical career. While the names may have changed, what has remained central to the songs is his use of intricate harmonies of the kind made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and, later, Neil Young as well.

With his new singing partners, Ms. Willis and Ms. Stevens, Mr. Crosby has found vocalists capable of holding their own and, if they choose, able to emulate great singers of his era like Joni Mitchell, a close friend of Crosby’s.

“These harmonies are denser than anything I’ve ever done,” Mr. Crosby said. “We do a version of ‘Woodstock,’ and we do it in four parts. When Becca sings, she can sound exactly like Joni if she wants. So does Michelle Willis, who is even a better singer than either Becca or I.

“Plus they’re half my age—and better looking,” he added.

Mr. Crosby, who produced Joni Mitchell’s debut LP, “Song to a Seagull,” in 1968, has enjoyed a very long friendship with the singer, and he pays tribute to her on his “Sky Trails” album with “Amelia,” Mitchell’s 1976 song about Amelia Earhart. He believes that Mitchell’s legacy is one that will endure.

“When they look back at singers and poets in 100 years, it’ll either be Bob [Dylan] or Joni,” he said. “I love Bob, and he’s my friend, but Joni can sing rings around him. She is the singer-songwriter of our time. She proves that on ‘Blue.’”

Mr. Crosby’s friendship and collaboration with other musicians speaks to the fruitful and productive history that marked the music scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But like all good things, many of those collaborations have come to an end—including his partnership born all those years ago in Sag Harbor with Stills and Nash.

“Initially, it was very much a cooperative thing. We were about supporting each other,” Mr. Crosby said. “It’s a natural progression. Bands start out in love with each other … 40 years later, it’s ‘Turn on the smoke machine and play your hits.’

“These groups I’m in with now, it’s what I love, and what we used to have and we’ve lost.”

Mr. Crosby is a two-time Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer (inducted for his work with The Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash) and, in 2009, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Now 76, he has witnessed many changes during his long career, both in terms of the music industry as well as the political landscape in this country.

While he remains politically outspoken, when asked if he and his bandmates understood the effect songs like “Ohio” and “Long Time Gone” had on the wider population in the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Crosby said: “No, I don’t think we had any idea at the time. We just knew we had to do it. Singing those songs now, I get five messages a day asking, would you please make up and do your job?

“Last time CSN performed together, we sang ‘Let’s Impeach the President for Lying,’” Mr. Crosby said, referring to a controversial 2006 Neil Young song about President George W. Bush in the wake of the Iraq War. “We didn’t realize it was the wrong president. This is the one we needed to sing about.”

David Crosby will perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach, on Saturday, June 9, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $102 to $167. Visit whbpac.org or call 631-288-1500.

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Hey Annette! Has North Haven been annexed to Sag Habor again? John Sebastian and family bought 10 Sunset Beach Rd. on North Haven from the Stark family before selling it to Lovelady Powell. His younger brother Mark went to Pierson. I'd seriously question Crosby's memory. after all, if you can remember the 60's you weren't there!
By Just sitting on the taffrail (36), Southampton on May 22, 18 5:20 PM
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