Until this year, I had never spent over $100 for a regular, non-benefit concert ticket. However, I decided to bite the bullet for the chance to see the first full show in 43 years by the reunited Buffalo Springfield in the intimate confines of Oakland’s Fox Theatre.
The beauty and coolness of this venue can’t be overstated. Located at the junction of Telegraph Avenue and Broadway in downtown Oakland, the art-deco movie palace has been fully restored and is now booked for concerts by Another Planet Entertainment, a group of former Bill Graham Presents employees that have set the gold standard for concert promotion in the Bay Area today. All of the employees I have dealt with there are friendly, relaxed, and helpful, and it comes across as a welcoming venue rather than a place that crowds in as many people as it can without much regard to the comfort of the patrons.
The interior of the theatre is simply stunning, with a vaguely Arabic theme featuring two enormous gold idols with red eyes flanking the stage, which is flanked with intricate gold scrolling. With a capacity of 2800, the theatre is unusually intimate, and it features such welcome amenities as truly comfortable seats, a bar and restaurant downstairs, and an immaculate cleanliness and tidiness often missing from such vintage venues.
The show was opened, as will be the case throughout the brief Springfield tour, by the acoustic duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Their brief set alternated between Welch originals like “Time the Revelator” and traditional country blues tunes like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.” The duo’s harmonies and Rawling’s athletic lead guitar went down very well with the crowd, the bulk of whom (at least from my vantage point in the front of the mezzanine) appeared to be eligible for membership in the AARP.
The stage set for the show also deserves comment. Behind the amps was a huge edifice consisting of six columns that supported a large “Buffalo Springfield” sign flanked by two life size and vividly three-dimensional images of the steam roller that spawned the group’s name,. When the lights went down, the fields between the columns became a field of lights vividly mimicking a starry night. Onstage, the group’s relatively modest amplifiers were joined by the cigar store Indian that has been a familiar fixture at Neil Young concerts over the years and a large Tiffany lamp that lit a vintage upright piano on stage left.
As noted earlier in this blog, I had a chance to see the reunited Springfield at last fall’s Bridge concerts. For that reason, the edge might have been taken off of the anticipation I felt when Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, and Young bounced onstage together to kick off the show with “On The Way Home.” As thrilling as the Bridge sets were, though, this show was an entirely different animal – the reunited group playing their first full show with electric instruments in over four decades. As on the album version of the tune, Furay, at center stage, took the lead vocal, with Stills and Young providing sublime harmonies.
Stills took the lead on the next tune, “Rock and Roll Woman,” with Furay and Young sharing a single microphone for the harmonies. Stills’ performances have been hit or miss over the years, but he has not looked this good or played this well consistently since the 1970s. The formerly chubby guitarist is down to fighting weight and was sharply dressed in a black shirt and blazer. Stills and Young always seem to bring out the best in one another instrumentally, and the pair played off one another brilliantly all night, most notably on a supercharged version of “Mr. Soul” late in the show.
After a brisk run through another chestnut, “Burned,” Young welcomed the crowd, saying “We’re the Buffalo Springfield – we’re from the past.” Young served as the wisecracking emcee most of the night, later recalling Nixon secretary Rosemary Woods and wondering about the ’44 year gap” in the Springfield’s touring history. When he introduced “I Am a Child” he remarked on the cover of the last, posthumous Springfield album, which had him looking in the opposite direction of the other band members. In response to that cover, which symbolized his defection from the group, he said, with evident regret, “that was bad – we shouldn’t have done that – an error.”
The rhythm section, comprising Young’s first call bassist Rick Rosas and long-time CSN drummer Joe Vitale, did a fine, unobtrusive job of keeping the tunes together. Versions of some tunes, like “Hot Dusty Roads” were faithful to the recorded versions while others, notably a slow, grungy take of “Hot Dusty Roads” for which Young brought out his mainstay guitar, the hot-rodded Les Paul known as Old Black. For the letter-perfect version of Furay’s soft ballad “Kind Woman,” Young churned out some honky tonk licks on the upright piano.
At one point, Young cracked, “We only know 10 songs,” but actually they played eighteen over the span of an hour and a half. Late in the show, the group dipped into its back catalogue for a few obscurities, including Furay’s “My Kind of Love,” which remained unreleased until the 2001 box set, and a slow, simmering version of Stills’ Everybody’s Wrong” from the first Springfield album. The set wrapped up with the inevitable “Bluebird,”given a sparkling new arrangement and providing fodder for some more guitar pyrotechnics. After a group stage bow, the group left the stage, Young’s arm slung companionably around Stills’ shoulder.
The three song encore offered more surprises, starting with what is probably the first live version of Young’s cinematic “Broken Arrow,” with Stills playing piano and Young softly playing the clarinet coda from the album on guitar. “For What Its Worth” has not always been delivered well live, but Stills nailed it this time. The night ended with the only song not from the Springfield canon per se, an over –the-top version of “Rocking in the Free World” with soaring three part harmonies and Young and Stills alternating lead vocals.
At the end of the day, the show offered pretty much everything a Springfield fan might want out of a show. Clearly Stills, Young, and Furay seem to be enjoying one another’s company, and the acid test will be whether they choose to extend the franchise into the twenty first century by producing new material. Whether they do or not, these reunion shows should make a powerful case for the Springfield being one of the best bands to have emerged in the 1960s.