The Wild Honey Foundation started putting on themed benefit concerts a quarter century ago and was revived a few years back, now benefitting the Autism Think Tank. A collection of superb Los Angeles-based musicians with extensive résumés comes together, led by guitarist Rob Laufer (Johnny Cash, George Martin, Cheap Trick, etc.) as The Wild Honey Orchestra to back special guest stars (many, but not all, also L.A.-based) and augment existing bands, this year performing songs of Buffalo Springfield, the band that shot Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Richie Furay (Poco, Souther-Hillman-Furay Band) -- along with bassist Bruce Palmer (later Jim Messina) and drummer Dewey Martin -- to fame in the late '60s.
Thanks to my Wild Honey pal Michael Ackerman, I got to attend both the show and two rehearsals, which even after decades of listening to the Springfield gave me added appreciation for how complex some of their songs are -- it was quickly clear that the Wild Honey Orchestra is made up of serious players, yet even they had to spend time working out the fine details of these songs and the tricky time signature changes of a few, most notably "Broken Arrow" (more on that tune later). And it was genuinely an orchestra, with strings and horns on several songs to match the studio arrangements , notably those by the great Jack Nitzsche (1937-2000), recreated by Kaitlin Wolfberg (Moby, The Monkees, Emmitt Rhodes, etc. [with these folks, there is always an etc. or "and many more" in their credits).
The show itself was an extravaganza at the wonderful old-L.A. Alex Theatre in Glendale. Even at the top of the balcony, the sound was good, and kudos to engineer Pete Magdaleno for deftly handling the complicated task of constantly adjusting to shifting lineups. It was a long evening, starting at 8 and ending at 11:30 with only two breaks, one a planned intermission and the other a quick technical clean-up. Writer Chris Morris introduced each act with well-chosen words of context regarding both songs and performers, plus longer remarks to open the show.
Not all the guests were either stars or L.A. stalwarts. Syd Straw came from the East coast to do "Down to the Wire," dressed in a fringe jacket that was combined with her announcement that she was "fifth runner-up in the Neil Young look-alike contest." (Muffs members Ronnie Barnett [bass] and Roy McDonald [drums, also Redd Kross] backed her.) Straw sang with her usual energy on this track that hadn't made any of the Springfield's three LPs but showed up later on Young's Decade compilation.
But L.A. dominated. Half of the Long Ryders (reunited and working on a new LP) were joined by Carla Olson (Textones) for a country-rock take on the Neil tune "Burned." Martha Davis (The Motels) shone on "Everybody's Wrong." Brent Rademaker (Beachwood Sparks, Gospelbeach) gave "Pay the Price" Dylanesque vocal inflections. All Day Sucker, a superb local band, dove deep into the Springfield catalog for "We'll See," a Stills-penned demo not released until the 2001 Rhino box; their tight vocal harmonies and frontman Morty Coyle's exuberance marked them as a band I'll be checking out. Also a trainspotter's delight was "Sit Down, I Think I Love You" delivered in the Van Dyke Parks arrangement the Mojo Men used to have a hit single in 1967, with Susan Cowsill and Darian Sahanaja (Wondermints, Brian Wilson's band) sharing the vocals.
Another unlikely highlight was the only Jim Messina song the Springfield recorded, "Carefree Country Day," with local favorite Steve Stanley (head honcho of the Now Sounds reissue label, and designer of the snazzy poster pictured at the top of this article) delivering a light-hearted rendition that perfectly captured the song's goofy charm.
Micky Dolenz, introduced as "a member of the band Stephen stills failed the audition for" (The Monkees, of course), hammed up the Furay/Young tune "It's So Hard to Wait," but in such charming fashion that I forgave him. In an odd coincidence, the youngest performer on the program, local singer-songwriter Nick Guzman (www.nguzman.com), ably delivered "I Am a Child"; I'll be looking out for his future work. Cars guitarist Elliot Easton, now a California resident, powered a "Bluebird" (with Willie Aron on lead vocals) mostly modeled on the long jam version released on Retrospective but with a touch of banjo by Probyn Gregory ( another member ofBrian Wilson's band) to refer to the abbreviated take released on Again.
The brightest star of the evening was, of course, Springfield co-founder Richie Furay, who across three appearances in the set sang eight songs. His voice remains clear and pure, his range still high. Often joining him on harmony vocals was his daughter, Jessie Furay Lynch, while his constant sidekick on guitar and banjo was the superb Scott Sellen. The highlights for me were hearing "Sad Memory" backed by the string section and a minimal rhythm section (at rehearsal, he'd turned around after the first run-through and asked, "Could I get you all to come out on the road with me?"), "Kind Woman" (which, he said, was written for his wife) with the adept pedal steel guitar of Dave Pearlman, the beautiful Young song " On the Way Home," and the Neil medley ("Flying on the Ground Is Wrong," "Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say It?" and "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing") that ended with a jam on the chords of "Clancy." He also talked about Neil asking him at their first reunion show whether "A Child's Claim to Fame" Richie had written it about Neil, which he admitted, and about living with Stills in a tiny apartment on Fountain St., working on their vocal parts and learning Stills's many songs. Stills's "Go and Say Goodbye," sung by Furay on their debut LP, received the most energetic Furay performance.
As great as Furay was, my four favorite performances were by others, and at a tribute show, that was fitting. The long shot of the evening was the unusual "In the Hour of Not Quite Rain," a third-LP song that came about because the group's managers set up a radio-station contest with the winner's lyrics to be included on the third LP. Winner Micki Callen's evocative poem was set to music by Furay and arranged for orchestra by Nitzsche; tonight it was sung by Our Truth, a duo of twin sisters Corinna and Isabelle Cott, with Nitzsche's arrangement copied. I have to believe this was the first public performance of the song (the Springfield never performed it), and almost certainly the first to feature the original's big production sound. Yet it is a very underrated and beautiful song, and I was absolutely thrilled to hear it.
Another orchestral highlight came on Young's gorgeous "Expecting to Fly," which had originally been recorded with Nitzsche for a Young solo album that was cancelled after he rejoined the Springfield. Wild Honey Orchestra musical director Rob Laufer sang lead and played guitar, perfectly capturing Young's sound on the latter, while Claudia Lennear, featured in the back-up singer documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom, provided the crucial vocal harmony. While Young used to include this song in his early sets, those were just acoustic guitar and his vocal, so this was another example of a Springfield song being performed in its original arrangement for probably the first time since it was put together in the studio. The small chamber orchestra was made to sound as hefty as the orchestra on the recording through adept enhancement via the mixing board in this transcendent performance.
Lennear took the lead on Stills's "Special Care," one of his most soulful songs; she emphasized the "would you like to shoot me down" line through repetition in what I took to be a timely political statement. Carrying through on this theme, she also included Stills's closing rap about how "some people are more equal than others." I had of course been impressed by Lennear's singing at the rehearsal, but she took it to a new level of intensity at the concert.
The most amazing performance, though, based on -- as they say in Olympic skating judging -- "degree of difficulty," was Young's collage piece "Broken Arrow." Chris Morris's introduction for this song included the fact that Young was inspired to give it its unusual form (partly cannibalizing his song "Down, Down, Down," a demo that can be heard on the Springfield's box set) after hearing The Beatles' "A Day in the Life." Very much a product of the studio, it starts with screams from a Beatles concert blending into the opening lines of "Mr. Soul," then goes into the first verse. A darkly psychedelic organ interlude of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," with crowd boos overdubbed, leads into the second verse. Repeated drum rolls, climaxing in an electronic echo, preface the third verse, after which a jazz quartet improvises until an amplified heartbeat ends the song. A few of these elements (crowd sounds, heartbeat) were sampled from the recording for this performance, but most of it was recreated live, with the clarinet/piano/upright bass/drums part made especially poignant by the presence of L.A. jazz legend Don Randi, who played the piano part on the recording, reprising his role. It turned out to be a bit of a challenge during rehearsal because in fact he had never played exactly what ended up on the album because that had been a cut-and-paste studio effort drawing from multiple takes and involving disconcerting meter changes that involved asymmetrical mixing of 3/4 and 4/4 time. But it was worked out to triumphant effect for the concert in a genuinely stunning performance also featuring the lead vocal of Iain Matthews (Fairport Convention).
The evening wrapped up, predictably but rousingly, with the Springfield's lone hit, the immortal "For What It's Worth," with "all hands on deck." Easton got to play the iconic ringing guitar riff; Furay, Dolenz, and Straw sang verses, and the performance closed with a cathartic chorus sing-along.
For all the songs I've mentioned, I have not come close to discussing all the performances; almost all were good, and I see no point in complaining about the one or two disappointments amid all the gems. As far as covering the catalog of the three official Springfield LPs, all of Young's songs were performed, one of Furay's wasn't (the Dewey Martin-sung "Good Time Boy," no loss), and three by the prolific leader Stills, all from the debut album, were omitted: "Baby Don't Scold Me," which was dropped after the first edition to be replaced by "For What It's Worth," and the wonderful "Leave," both of which I'd have loved to hear but hey, it was already a 3-1/2 hour show; and "Hot Dusty Roads," no loss. All in all, a well-chosen, well-performed, and well-organized show that I will cherish in memory. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music Festival. The CD of the soundtrack is avilable on MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure).