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Grumpy old men: (l-r) Nash, Stills, Young and Crosby at SPAC.

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Pop Life During Wartime

By Kirsten Ferguson

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 19

Out of the three concerts that I’ve seen at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this summer, all three had a political element, to varying degrees. Bruce Springsteen has made his political views pretty well known the past few years, campaigning for John Kerry during the last presidential election and in recent interviews bashing the Bush administration’s motives for taking the country to war. Yet at his SPAC concert in June with the Seeger Sessions Band, Springsteen kept the antiwar polemic to a minimum during songs and let the music do the talking: his performance of “Bring ’em Home,” a Vietnam-era Pete Seeger tune with updated lyrics, was more moving than any statement from the stage could have been. Then earlier this month at SPAC, John Fogerty saved his antiwar leanings for one powerful protest song, “Deja Vu (All Over Again),” punctuated by a video screen shot of dead soldiers’ empty boots that nearly made me cry.

There is power in subtlety. And then there was the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young show at SPAC on Saturday night, which was anything but understated. Neil Young, dressed in a floppy fishing hat, brought his own faux-cable news network “LWW” (Living With War) to the amphitheater video screens, flashing headlines like “President Bush Ignores Soldier’s Burials” amid pictures of flag-draped coffins as a numeric counter of the death-toll ratcheted upward. “I have to come to a concert to learn this shit?” my friend said, surprised to see that we’re nearing the 3,000 mark of fallen U.S. soldiers.

Where I sat, Young’s political-themed songs from his latest album, Living with War, were largely well-received. The audience inside the amphitheater (and out) heartily cheered lines like, “We don’t need no more lies,” during the song “The Restless Consumer,” or “Let’s impeach the president for spying,” from “Let’s Impeach the President.” The latter song, the centerpiece of Young’s new album, was preceded by the guitarist’s Hendrix-at-Woodstock shredding of the “Star Spangled Banner” in front of an outsized microphone tied with a yellow ribbon, a prop recycled from Young’s 1991 Ragged Glory tour during the first Gulf War.

Whether these tracks played as well out on the jam-packed lawn I can’t say for sure, but it’s hard to imagine that most people didn’t know Neil’s political stuff was coming. Young streamed this latest album from his Web site for weeks, and a couple days prior sang “Let’s Impeach the President” in a hilarious segment on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, among other places. “It’s the ‘Freedom of Speech’ tour, he can say whatever he wants,” said the fan next to me, who had traveled down from Canada for the show.

Otherwise, the concert was an apt demonstration of the democratic process at work: Neil Young sang 75 percent of his new songs, and the three other guys shared the remaining 25 percent of the spotlight, tossing out most of the crowd-pleasing oldies in the latter part of the set, from the Buffalo Springfield classic “For What It’s Worth” to the Crosby-led soporific “Teach Your Children.” During “Treetop Flyer,” Stills tossed off a “yeah right” aside after the lyric, “I promised my woman this would be my last one,” and my friend summed up the long-running band dynamic thusly:

“Stills: sleazy. Crosby: jovial. Nash: burnt by the sun.”

Center of Attention Guster, Ray LaMontagne

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 17

Pop trio Guster built their empire around an image of pseudo-hippy-dippy, collegiate normalcy; and pop sensibilities that somehow endeared them to fans of both Dave Matthews and Ben Folds. This suited the group well as they worked their way up from sorority houses to campus ballrooms. Now, with a very good new album (Ganging Up on the Sun) to their credit, they’ve attempted the leap to larger venues; and, judging by the 5,000-or-so faces at their Saratoga performance last week, the band’s fans have actually gotten younger as the band have matured. So they’ve got that going for them.

Last Thursday, early on in the now-quartet’s two-hour set, singer Ryan Miller claimed to have told the band’s booking agent, “We’re not playing Saratoga until we can headline a 25,000-person arena!” as he looked out on a near-empty balcony and lawn. This kind of joking self-awareness suits them well—the little girls laughed and shrieked at Miller’s every (bad) joke, and the band certainly tried their best to keep things “fun”—but the group’s attempt to “grow up” conflicts with their very character.

Maybe they simply haven’t adjusted to their new environs. The least-immediate tunes were plunked down in some strange places, keeping the band from picking up any steam early-on, and while the seven-minute-plus ballad “Ruby Falls” is one of Guster’s best recorded efforts, it failed to generate any real audience enthusiasm in its late-set appearance. The set certainly had its moments—reworking the creepy “Airport Song” as a mirror-ball-and-all disco romp was inspired—but they were too few and far between. When Miller informed the crowd that they’d “just seen a Guster show!” prior to closer “Keep It Together,” my gut reaction was “Yeah, so what?”

Just about any act could have been disappointing following Ray LaMontagne’s deeply affecting set. LaMontagne, a former shoe-factory worker from Maine who possesses a voice that can best be described as sublime, ostensibly took the stage to plug his new album When the Sun Turns Black (due in stores this week), but he instead stuck primarily his excellent 2004 debut Trouble. Plugging wasn’t the game here, anyway: Backed by a smart, tight three-piece, LaMontagne simply and beautifully sang his soul, and said little else. Dressed in a flannel shirt and looking like a woodsman version of the young Cat Stevens, he stirred up visions of a pre-jazzbo Tim Buckley or the magnetic Tupelo Honey-era vibe of Van Morrison. I’d be shocked if there were a dry eye in the house during the heart-wrenching drug ballad “Jolene.” (If anyone tries to tell you I cried, I will fight them.) Best performance of the summer.

—John Brodeur

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