Cratedigger: Stephen Stills, “Manassas”

Written by Cratedigger, Music

In this week’s Cratedigger, Ken Shane blows the dust off a copy of Stephen Stills’ early ’70s apogee, Manassas.

Stephen Stills - ManassasIn his long and (not necessarily positive) storied career, Stephen Stills has constantly been overshadowed, in the press and in the court of popular opinion, by his longtime friend, band mate, and occasional sparring partner, Neil Young. While it’s certainly true that Stills has brought a lot of this on himself, it’s a shame that some very fine music has been overlooked as a result.

By 1972, Stills had already had a career that any musician would envy. Beginning with the seminal folk-rock band the Buffalo Springfield, where he sent his classic song “For What It’s Worth” to the top of the charts, and then on to Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and later Young), where he had enjoyed enormous success, Stills seemed to have a golden touch. His early solo work, including the hit “Love the One You’re With,” was very well received.

Stills’ next move was to form what by today’s standards would be a supergroup. It was an assemblage of some of the finest musicians working at the time. The band included such stalwarts as ex-Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman, CSNY drummer Dallas Taylor and bass player Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels, Blues Image percussionist Joe Lala, master steel guitar player Al Perkins, legendary fiddler Byron Berline, among others.

Manassas repaired to Miami’s Criteria Studios, where Stills, Hillman, and Taylor produced their self-titled debut, which was a double album. It was engineered by Howard Albert. They divided the work into four “suites,” each of which corresponded to a side of the album. In order, the suites were entitled “The Raven,” “The Wilderness,” “Consider,” and “Rock & Roll Is Here To Stay.” The album was released on April 12, 1972 by Atlantic Records. It peaked at number four on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart.

The music maintains a consistently high standard over the course of the four sides, although grasping the connection that binds the songs together in each suite is sometimes a puzzle. No matter. Side one features the gorgeous Stills-Hillman co-write “Both of Us (Bound to Lose),” on which Stills shares the vocal chores with Hillman. The band also shows off their Latin influence, courtesy of some great work by Lala, on “Cuban Bluegrass.”

Side two, “The Wilderness,” opens, appropriately, with “Fallen Eagle,” in which Stills decries the lack of habitat for one of nature’s most majestic creatures. “So Begins the Task,” also featured on side two, was a mainstay of the CSN live sets. Side three opens with “It Doesn’t Matter,” which was released as a single, and made it to number 61 on the charts. It was later a hit for Firefall. The side closes with the electric “Love Gangster,” which Stills co-wrote with Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, who plays bass on the track.

The final side delivers on the rock and roll promise of it’s title. “Right Now” features some beautiful electric slide guitar work from Stills, making it one of the album’s most intense and hard-hitting tracks. “The Treasure (Take One)” follows, giving the side a great one-two punch. Piano player Paul Harris shines on this one, which ends with an extended jam. The album’s final track, the solo acoustic “Blues Man,” is dedicated to three great, and at the time recently deceased, guitar heroes, Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat’s Al Wilson, and Duane Allman.

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