One of the keystone American groups of the 1960s, a star-nursery for American rock ‘n’ roll, the reconstituted Buffalo Springfield will play two dates at the Santa Barbara Bowl — at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday — with the respected folk-rocker Gillian Welch opening.
When the Eagles got together for their “Hell Freezes Over” tour, they hadn’t performed together as a group for 16 years (“For the record,” said Don Henley, “we never broke up. We just took a real long vacation.”) The Buffalo Springfield, on the other hand, broke up rather noisily after just 25 months, and haven’t played together for 43 years.
Original band members Neil Young, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay will reprise their roles at the Bowl, with Rick Rosas on bass and Joe Vitale on drums. (The original bassist Bruce Palmer has died, as has original drummer Dewey Martin. And no one has mentioned Jim Messina, who took over as bass player on the band’s third and last album, after Palmer had left the group.)
It is indicative of the proverbial cluelessness of record company executives that the original release of the Springfield’s first album did not contain “For What It’s Worth” — their first and biggest hit, a meditation on the meaning of the Sunset Strip curfew riots in the summer of 1966 — and the album had to be re-mastered and re-issued. The song got its title, which appears nowhere in the text, when Stills, who wrote it, handed a demo into the record company — Atco, a division of Atlantic Records — remarking, “I have this song here, for what it’s worth, if you want it.” The ‘60s caught the recording industry utterly unprepared: everybody wanted to sign a new Beatles, a new Dylan, but very few had the discernment and intelligence to do anything but roll the dice. For a few, blissful years, chaos reigned.
After the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds overthrew the old order — followed through the breach in this country by the Byrds, The Buffalo Springfield, the Beau Brummels and the Lovin’ Spoonful — a phenomenon arose known as the “supergroup.” These were groups, mainly in England, formed by musicians who had distinguished themselves in their original groups and hoped to increase their reputations exponentially by merging their personal fan bases. Cream and Traffic are examples of this kind of supergroup. A more useful application of the term, I think, would be to groups like the Byrds and the Springfield who, between them, spawned around 20 significant musical entities.
The four main original Byrds — Jim “Roger” McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman — divided their song-writing gifts pretty equally between them, and wrote very different kinds of songs, but as long as they had McGuinn’s voice and his Rickenbacker electric 12-string, they sounded like the Byrds. Although Neil Young, Richie Furay and Steve Stills were the equals, both as songwriters and musicians, of those four Byrds, the Buffalo Springfield hadn’t a similar unifying “sound.” “For What It’s Worth” and “Bluebird” sounded like Stills, “I am a Child” and “Broken Arrow” sounded like Young, “A Child’s Claim to Fame” and “Kind Woman” sounded like Furay. (Even when Furay took the lead vocal in a song by Young or Stills, the song sounded like the writer.)
When the original Byrds recorded a reunion album in 1973, the late Clark insisted upon singing, in addition to two of his own songs, two by Young — “because he is one of the greatest songwriters of our times.” Very few with any interest in the matter would, I think, disagree with Clark. If the Buffalo Springfield had had only Stills and Furay, it would still have been a terrific band, and the sound might even have achieved a much higher degree of integration, but we would not, today, be looking forward to this reunion concert with such joyful anticipation.
“I am a child, I last awhile./ You can’t conceive of/ The pleasure in my smile.”
Welch, who was maybe a year old when the Springfield broke up, has a supremely confident and polished, quasi-bluegrass sound, and the tight, intense harmonies she achieves with her musical partner, guitarist David Rawlings, are nothing short of sublime. On top of which, she is an excellent songstress, mainly in the intimate, sometimes ironic, lyrical vein.
Tickets for the Buffalo Springfield and Gillian Welch range from $49 to $153, plus applicable service charges. The Santa Barbara Bowl is located at 1122 N. Milpas St. Call 805.962.7411 for more information.
— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com.