|David Crosby and the Sky Trails Band|
June 9, 2018
Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center
photo by Roy Abrams
Alighting onto Main Street slightly past 6PM on Saturday, June 9th, was a slightly hallucinatory experience. An early Saturday evening in not-quite-spring, almost-summer in Westhampton Beach featured sunlight at just the right angle to bathe the multi-colored storefronts in glowing pastel colors. Keeping our strides at the outer edge of “relaxed”, we soon reached our destination: THE WESTHAMPTON BEACH PERFORMING ARTS CENTER … and there on the marquee were four words that foretold of an imminent event: DAVID CROSBY SOLD OUT.
This East End venue is intimately-sized, with comfortable seats and solid acoustics, and the capacity crowd exuded an anticipatory aura while the clock ticked ever more closely to 8:00 PM. Finally, the lights dimmed as Crosby walked confidently onstage, accompanied by his stellar five-piece band, and the audience whooped it up, ready for an evening replete with—as its creator affectionately refers to as—“the weird shit.” Those already familiar with Crosby’s recent golden era of creativity knew that they were in for a kaleidoscopic trip of a performance, one that would witness the band extending exploratory tentacles down the corridors of multiple genres, a feat permitted solely due to the fusion of inherent talent of its individual members and their telepathic intercommunication.
Not only is David Crosby seemingly at the peak of his performing prowess (this, after more than 50 years doing it!); consider who is joining him onstage: composer/keyboardist/singer James Raymond, Crosby’s biological son and an integral component of much of Crosby’s creative output since the late ‘90s, with the band CPR … a group rounded out by the next member of the Sky Trails band, guitarist Jeff Pevar. A musician’s musician whose instrumental technique is awe-inspiring, Pevar also helps to round out the vocal harmony stacks which permeate so much of the performance. On bass is the elfin Mai Leisz, providing a relentless groove while managing to weave almost vocal-like melodies throughout the night. Completing the rhythm section is Steve DiStanislao, a master percussionist who can also be seen in David Gilmour’s touring band. The ensemble is completed by a young singer/songwriter from Toronto. Michelle Willis’s voice has been described by Crosby as sounding “like God on a good day”; to hear her sing is to know the truth of those words.
As the opening guitar lick of “In My Dreams” filled the hall, Crosby and crew embarked on a two-set celebration of The Muse, whose presence was thick and almost palpable. Waves of musical conversations merged with undercurrents running deep with harmonic counterpoint and the seamless application of performance art, delivered by a truly unique combination of artists. You may remember I initially referred to “those already familiar with Crosby’s recent golden era …” Now imagine the realms of wonderment into which the remainder of the audience was drawn!
Following up with “Morrison,” a favorite from the first CPR album, the journey quickened and shifted course. Next up was “Naked in the Rain,” an extraordinary deep cut from 1975’s Crosby/Nash album, Wind on the Water. The group harmonies executed on this song were flawless, which is saying a great deal, given their complexity. Continuing with two more CPR-era songs, “That House” and “At the Edge” showcased the often-overlooked instantly-identifiable sound possessed by that trio. In knockout succession, “Guinevere,” “What Are Their Names,” Long Time Gone,” and “Déjà Vu” brought the first set to a close. (Special mention must be given to Mai Leisz, whose bass playing on “Guinevere” was eerily reminiscent of Jack Casady’s lyrical brilliance on the 1968 demo version of the song.) Many in the audience—myself included—were brought to their feet by the magical energy emanating from the stage.
The second set began with “Lee Shore”, a compositional contribution from earlier times, soothing soul medicine for all to absorb. “Homeward Through the Haze,” also from Wind on the Water, was a stunner; again, the group harmonies equaled the finesse and strength of the original track. Michelle Willis shared lead vocals on “Sky Trails,” the title track of Crosby’s 2017 album, a jazz-infused work which both fans and critics are still marveling over. (The song’s co-writer, Becca Stevens, is a part of Crosby’s Lighthouse Band, another unique conglomerate of musicians that also includes Willis.) The next song, “Delta,” is well-known to Crosby’s fans as the last “real” song he wrote prior to falling over the cliff of drug addiction and—miraculously—escaping with his life and muse intact. James Raymond’s opening keyboard explorations were breathtaking, injecting a majestic, cinematic atmosphere to an already emotionally-laden track. From any vantage point in the room, it was possible to detect the gleam of pride and joy in his father’s eyes as he watched his son’s fingers soar effortlessly over the keyboard, conjuring up choice and chance in a single measure. Changing pace entirely, the spotlight was turned toward Michelle Willis, who led the band through a steamy version of her own “Janet”, proving her a songwriting force of nature to contend with. Another turn of the wheel and Crosby is back at the mic, espousing his love and respect for the U.S. Constitution and our country’s better angels … ending with a spine-tingling “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Just as soon as things got serious, things took a turn for the blues with a sizzling version of “Thousand Roads” from Crosby’s 1993 solo album of the same name. The penultimate song of the evening was “Wooden Ships,” which was treated to a dazzling display of group effort, and met with an extended standing ovation from the audience.
Returning to the stage for a blistering encore of “Ohio”, the band and audience chanted as one during the song’s closing moments. We were all reminded of two things simultaneously: we are experiencing “strange days, indeed”, as John Lennon once said, but we should be exceedingly grateful for artists such as David Crosby and his friends who will travel to your town and lift your spirits for an evening of transcendent music … offering a much-needed dose of soul medicine for our times.
© Roy Abrams 2018