Graham Nash is the Sixties personified. He began his career with The Hollies, a pop group (in 1962 bands played dance music in ballrooms; pop was played by groups) who had great success with 30 chart singles in the UK and 21 in the USA.
Unlike most of the other groups, they regularly employed three-part harmony in their vocals and earned the soubriquet of ‘The Group’s Group’. The Hollies was founded by Nash and his primary school friend Allan Clarke. In 1968 Graham Nash left the group to move to Los Angeles, where he still lives. He joined up with Stephen Stills from Buffalo Springfield, and David Crosby from the Byrds, who became Crosby, Stills and Nash. Later, the band (times had changed by then) became a quartet when the Canadian Neil Young, another Buffalo Springfield member, joined them. The songs became more thoughtful and mellow and led to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a feat repeated for Nash when The Hollies were awarded the same accolade. History lesson over, now let’s get to the gig.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a stalker but I have seen Graham Nash three times before; once in 1965 at the Odeon Cinema in Leeds (on The Headrow where Sports Direct is now) when The Hollies shared the bill with Gerry and the Pacemakers, once at the Free Trades Hall in Manchester when he was in the audience at a Simon and Garfunkel concert – and a couple of years ago at the Ilkley Literature Festival, when he was interviewed about his autobiography. He is a man who acknowledges his mistakes in life but still manages to see the best it has to offer, which is very refreshing at a time when we seem to be infested with people moaning about everything.
He took to the stage at exactly 7.30, ever the professional, and began by dedicating the evening to Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack) as he had been to Shibden Hall in the afternoon. He said that it was an incredible place which was built in 1420, making it only a couple of years younger than David Crosby. We were treated to a selection of songs covering his whole career, many of which were lesser-known album tracks, and whilst this is usually the kiss of death for a concert given by a legend, in this case they were carefully chosen to illustrate the pop years, the sensitive aspect to his writing and those providing comments on the human spirit. If this sounds a bit heavy it most certainly wasn’t, although he did have to compose himself, no pun intended for once, after singing a couple of songs written for his former partner Joni Mitchell as they were personal and obviously affected him.
The songs were performed as a trio, enabling the famous three-part harmonies to be executed. Graham Nash played a selection of acoustic guitars constantly supplied by a hard-working roadie who must have run out of room on his Fitbit for steps walked, and keyboards. The other two sides to the triangle were Todd Caldwell, who played keyboard, which he has done for several years with Crosby, Stills and Nash. He is from Lubbock, Texas which is very appropriate as this is where Buddy Holly was born, the inspiration for The Hollies’ name. The third man was someone who regales in the name of Shane Fontayne, a Londoner on electric guitar. This line-up more or less reflected the CSNY combination, where there was no bass or drums, the emphasis being placed on vocals.
Even at 77 years of age, Nash’s voice was as clear as ever and the full range of notes hit with ease, no mean feat as some of the classic Hollies songs are in a fairly high register. As well as his own songs, he played a few covers, one of which was the highlight of the evening for me, perhaps because of the contrast with the rest. The atmosphere induced by the pop of the early stuff and the soft rock of the later material was shattered like a store window in a ram raid when the trio broke into A Day in The Life from The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. How three performers can interpret this with seemingly no electronic gismos is beyond me. For anyone not familiar with the piece, it is like Bohemian Rhapsody on steroids. It is an amalgam of two songs, one written by McCartney and one by Lennon, neither of whom could work out how to finish each one off, so they combined them and George Martin used every trick in the book, and then wrote a few more, in order to produce it to within an inch of its life. The guitar playing was superb from Nash and Fontaine, stopping just short of extracting blood from their eardrums – and Caldwell’s keyboard gymnastics adding to the experience and the famous cacophony at the climax. The place was in uproar.
Interspersed between the songs were anecdotes such as the one about the time a man said to him ‘I bet you $500 that you can’t write a song before I go’. He sat down and wrote the song ‘Just Before I Go’, Nash still has the $500 as a souvenir, unlike the substantial royalties earned from it. Other tales related to the inspiration for his songs which sometimes come from the simple things in life, my favourite being Our House which is a beautiful song about enjoying the moment, the one you love and contentment with the things you have.
I must mention the sound quality, which was superb and the lighting so subtly handled that I didn’t notice that it was changing until Nash sang Cathedral, which he said was written on a ‘trip’ to Winchester Cathedral the day after he had partaken of a particular pharmaceutical not available over the counter at Boots, and was still feeling its effect. The flashing lights recreated the mood for our benefit!
My lasting memories of the evening will not only be the performance, both instrumentally and vocally, but also the attitude of the man. At an age when everything should be annoying him as not being as it once was, he pointed out the thing we all seem to have forgotten, which is that in a world dominated by negatives, it is only bad news which sells newspapers and provides material for radio and TV programmes. He reminded us that every day there are millions of positive things being done by normal people which we never get to hear about. He said that we should concentrate on those and increase them. He then finished with the anthem Teach Your Children Well, which, although aimed at parents, he dedicated to every teacher in the world. Cue a well deserved, lengthy standing ovation.
Photograph by Stan Graham.