David Crosby at Jefferson Center

David Crosby, on stage Thursday at Jefferson Center, celebrates the end of his band's performance of "Eight Miles High," a classic he recorded with The Byrds.

"Happy birthday" shouts began as the first standing ovation ended for David Crosby at Jefferson Center.

He and his band had just walked onstage in front of a clearly enthusiastic, sold-out crowd of more than 900 on Thursday. "No, no, no, no. Not the birthday crap. No!" Crosby said. "I hate birthdays. If your birthday number was as high as mine, you'd shoot yourself."

Crosby, who turned 78 on Wednesday, neither played nor sang like a man at the end of the line. What's more, he and a phenomenal five-piece backing band that included his son, band leader and keyboardist James Raymond, presented two sets of music that so far has proven timeless. 

It was a lot of music from Crosby's deep past — Crosby Stills & Nash, The Byrds, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and a couple of long-ago solo albums. There was little from the four records that have constituted Crosby's late-era creative burst. The only one from that 2014 to 2018 run was "Janet," and that was a spotlight for its writer, keyboardist/singer Michelle Willis. Another one, yet to be recorded, featured Crosby's still-strong tenor, singing "I think I found my way." 

The latter sounded right at home, structurally, among the old stuff. Willis' number, which summoned some funky, Little Feat-style vibes, came from Crosby's 2018 album "Here If You Listen," but with Thursday's jazz-rocking combo behind it, "Janet" sounded fit for yet another of the recent albums, "Sky Trails."

That jazz-rock feel was prevalent throughout the sets. Crosby says that Steely Dan is his favorite band, and that sort of approach fueled the arrangements to classics "Long Time Gone" and "Deja Vu," from the first set, and the second set's "Delta" and "Wooden Ships." "Deja Vu" included long solos from Willis, bassist Mai Leisz, Raymond and guitarist Jeff Pevar. All were compelling, with Pevar delivering fire time and again throughout the show. The vocal harmonies — always a key element of two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Crosby's work — were flawless.

Drummer Steven DiStanislao, whom Crosby shares with Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, and Leisz were powerful but restrained.

"Everyone up here is better than me," Crosby said. "I planned it that way."

That statement was part of a series of jokes about his inability to remember how he plays songs from one night to the next. But his guitar work, whether finger picking on an acoustic or strumming hip chords on an electric, was impressive. After the first standing O — the first of several — Crosby opened "In My Dreams" with a deftly worked finger-style pattern. The new number, recorded on recent set lists as "I Think I," included a wonderful guitar harmony that meshed with the closing line of Pevar's solo break.

Vocally, Crosby remains a force, and only occasionally imperfect. He delivered high notes, like the ones in "Carry Me," that thrilled the audience, and his parts in the band's three-, four- and five-voice harmony mixes were vintage stuff.

He's a talker, and entertaining when he talks. He introduced "Cowboy Movie," from his 1971 solo album "If I Could Only Remember My Name," as the story of the first of Crosby Stills Nash & Young's many breakups. "But you'd have to know who was who," he said, cryptically.

The 1968 tune "Triad" was "part of the reason why they threw me out of the Byrds," he said, to laughter. It's a "love song, honest," but his bandmates, Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn, didn't get it. "Nice guys, though," he added. "Kind of square."

Talking about "Delta," he recalled his days as a hardcore junkie, when his friend, Jackson Browne, pushed him to complete the song, even taking him to Warren Zevon's house to work on it, because Crosby had no piano.

Introducing the night's shortest song, the a cappella "What Are Their Names," he recalled watching President Dwight Eisenhower's "Military Industrial Complex" speech as a teen ager, then realizing as an adult how politicians are bought and sold for so little.

"We don't have democracy now. We have corporatocracy," he said. "I don't like it. There's only one way to change it. Vote. Democracy works if you work it. We have to convince our kids it's a good idea, because they're not so sure."

He encored with "Ohio," the song he inspired Neil Young to write about the 1970 shootings at Kent State University. He said he needed the audience's help.

"C'mon, get loud!" he said. "I ... wanna ... know ... why!" he shouted in response to the repeated final line, "four dead in Ohio."

Crosby hasn't lost that radical spirit, and he hasn't lost his enthusiasm for performing. Here's hoping he's back at Jefferson Center after the next record drops.

Contact Tad Dickens at tad.dickens@roanoke.com or 777-6474. Follow him on Twitter: @cutnscratch.  

 

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