As if it weren’t obvious by the time 4 Way Street came out a half-century ago (4/7/71)—but is absolutely unmistakable with that protracted hindsight—Crosby, Stills Nash & Young were not a band in the true sense of the word. On the contrary, these refugees from other fairly famous ensembles constituted a group of solo artists, each of whom had their own respective talents, not all of which were so complementary as to form a unit self-sufficient unto itself.
The ostensible reason for the addition of Young, Stills’ former bandmate in Buffalo Springfield, was to allow more flexibility in live performance and thereby replicate the arrangements that populated the original trio’s album of 1969. So too was the recruitment of a rhythm section, peopled with various players but ultimately the team graciously introduced here, respectively, drummer Johnny Barbata and bassist Calvin Samuels; this rhythm section was stalwart if not exactly swinging support for renditions of electric music such as “Pre-Road Downs” and “Long Time Gone” following a rotation of pieces dubbed ‘wooden music’ for their acoustic-guitar foundation. Oddly, only thirty-three seconds of what is perhaps that stylistic archetype appear here in the form of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
The near two hours of performances on this set were culled from shows at The Forum in Los Angeles, the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, and the Fillmore East in New York (site of widely distributed bootlegs contained more expansive selections). Many of the tunes had yet to be released in any other form at the time performances but did appear in the interim on solo records, previewing the rotating collaborations the subsequently occurred in lieu of full reunions in the future. More to the point, however, the non-exclusivity of so many selections only reaffirm the impression of CSNY as a less-than-truly unified aggregation.
‘All for one and one for all’ was only occasionally their mantra, but adding to the cache of the initial release was the fact many songs included on the album had yet to be issued as part of the combined or individual works. To wit, Crosby’s “The Lee Shore” and Nash’s “Right Between the Eyes” would end up exclusive to this album until the 1991 box set. To its credit, the quartet did include both sides of what was at the time their new single “Ohio” b/w “Find the Cost of Freedom;” both feature streamlined harmonies that unfortunately turn somewhat strained during the high-volume likes of “Carry On.”
Strangely, considering their respective resumes, Bill Halverson’s original engineering doesn’t benefit appreciably from Joe Gastwirt’s remastering of the 1992 expanded edition of 4 Way Street. On that two-CD set, the original track listing was appended with over an extra half-hour of concert content. Yet even without the inclusion of those numbers–”King Midas In Reverse,”(Nash’s lone homage to his previous band The Hollies), Crosby’s “Laughing,” Stills’ “Black Queen,” Young’s “The Loner/Cinnamon Girl/”Down By The River”– the contrasts in these creative personalities are striking. Crosby’s ode to ongoing menage a trois, “Triad,” is not only haunting as he sings it, but also less glib as a song than Stills’ paean to promiscuity, “Love The One You’re With.”
At the same time, Young’s aforementioned topical tune, perhaps the best he ever composed, suggests the complexity of issues Nash’s “Chicago” oversimplifies. For his part, Stills takes the socially-conscious approach to over-emotive extremes with his medley of “49 Bye-Byes”/America’s Children” (including a barely recognizable nod to his own culturally-relevant pinnacle “For What It’s Worth”).
Meanwhile, the array of electric selections further delineates the artistic hierarchy within CSNY (the latter letter might’ve come first if he’d been privy to the initial encounters). To be fair, “Southern Man” does fulfill the potential of Stills/Young guitar battles first enacted with the Springfield (see the eponymous anthology for a nine-minute extended version of “Bluebird” consisting of a live jam appended to the studio version). In fact, the pair’s dual instrumental interactions are easily the most engrossing aspect of the group improvisations: the back-and-forths over the course of thirteen-fourteen minutes represent the highlights of this album.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young splintered after the tour from which these recordings were culled and would not regroup until the stadium trek four years later (documented on the multi-disc box CSNY 1974). Yet even at that point, CSNY filled a vacuum for an audience looking for a worthy object of devotion. It’s a dynamic that has fossilized through the years of still-born reunions, interrupted collaborations, and public feuding, to the point the title 4 Way Street rings more true now than ever before.