Stephen Stills, Musical Cornucopia


Manassas_PiecesManassas: Pieces (Eyewall/Rhino) This is the third vault-mining compilation Stephen Stills has been involved with recently for Rhino. He started with the solo Just Roll Tape: April 26th, 1968 in 2007; earlier this year we got  CSN Demos; now this. All have been rewarding, and it's nice for a change to be able to get rarities without having to rebuy an album you already own that some label's decided to attach them to. This is the way to do it without ripping off fans, so kudos to Stills and Rhino Records! A Stills-led country-rock band that existed in 1971-73, Manassas combined members of his tour band and Flying Burrito Brothers Chris Hillman, pedal steel ace Al Perkins, and fiddler Byron Berline (technically not an official Manassas member, but prominent here and on the band's debut).  

As with the Burritos, but never on Manassas' albums until this one, there are some fine country covers: a mellow acoustic take on the honky tonk classic "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)" with no vocal credit (I'm guessing Hillman) and two bluegrass evergreens, Leon McAuliffe's "Panhandle Rag" taken at scorching speed and Bill Monroe's "Uncle Pen" with Berline on lead vocal.

Disappointingly, there are no alternates from the band's self-titled double-LP debut, which is generally acclaimed as Stills's finest work outside of Buffalo Springfield and CSNY. There are three from Manassas' sophomore LP Down the Road: a rocking take on Hillman's "Lies," with Joe Walsh on guitar; the instrumental Latin groove "Tan Sola y Triste," eventually remade with lyrics as "Pensamiento"; and an uptempo bluegrass version of "Do You Remember the Americans" that finds Perkins picking banjo with alacrity.

Surprisingly, two songs from Stephen Stills 2 were remade: "Sugar Babe," which includes the immortal only-in-the-Seventies couplet "How do turtles talk to one another? They just look, there's no reason to cower," and an electrified but abbreviated version of "Word Game." For no apparent reason, Stills wedges in a 1975 solo ringer, "My Love Is a Gentle Thing," which he's now released in three different versions, this being the most fragmentary, though it's still beautiful.

A few tracks are familiar because they were later remade. Hillman liked Stills's "Witching Hour" so much that he used it on his first solo album, but here, for the first time we get to hear Stills sing this autobiographical song about the breakup of CSNY. Hillman's own "Love and Satisfy" shouldn't have been left off Down the Road; he took the song (not in this recording) to his next group, the  Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. "Fit to Be Tied" was recycled (with a new title) in less muscular form on his '75 album Stills.

And there's the treasure diehard fans are always happiest to get: original songs previously unreleased in any form. It's astonishing that "Like a Fox" (with Bonnie Raitt on backing vocals) hasn't surfaced before, considering it's a better song than about half of what ended up on Down the Road. The down-and-dirty blues jam "High and Dry" (a takeoff on "Lonely Avenue") has some hot guitar and a thrilling two-part structure oddly yet effectively accented by fake applause. The bluesy closer "I Am My Brother" renews Stills's predilection for closing albums with an intense solo track.

The lack of track-by-track performer credits is a disappointment (the question of who's playing which keyboards, Stills or Paul Harris, is something I'd like to know more about), but the notes by Bill DeYoung and Stills are good and overall this is a well-done (and ecologically conscious) package. - Steve Holtje

 Stephen Stills Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.