David Crosby is 75 years old. He’s already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – as a member of the Byrds in 1991 and as one third of Crosby Stills & Nash in 1997. He’s battled serious problems with even more serious narcotics, had successful liver transplant surgery, and done hard jail time on drug charges. The basic laws of biology suggest he should’ve been dead a long time ago. And since he happens to not be dead, his stature as an eminence grise of rock music would certainly grant him the ability to be coasting in a most lucrative manner these days.
So why is Crosby releasing music that stands on an even plane with the finest of his storied career today? And why is he working with members of a musical collective that includes some of the most abundantly talented millennials in jazz or any other genre?
The answers to these questions are writ large all over Crosby’s freshly released “Lighthouse” (Ground Up/Verve), a full-length collection of profoundly moving and casually sophisticated folk-jazz pieces made in true collaboration with Snarky Puppy leader Michael League, who produced the album, played multiple instruments on every track, and co-wrote much of the material with Crosby.
Crosby has always been a super hip composer, going back to the days of “Guinevere,” “Wooden Ships” and “Déjà vu,” tunes that majestically married the tenets of folk music to advanced harmonic qualities more often associated with jazz and classical music. Somewhat miraculously, the Crosby responsible for such pieces as those mentioned above is in ample evidence throughout “Lighthouse,” which opens with a subtle tour de force of light/shade manipulation in the form of “Things We Do For Love,” and proceeds onward through haunting, harmony-laden pieces of remarkable depth. These tunes, in the parlance of jazz musicians, “have changes” – there are not a lot of stock folk-based chord progressions here, but rather, repetitive evidence of a musician and songwriter with an impeccable ear and a still-vibrant sense of daring and adventure.
League – with some support from fellow Snarky Puppy maestros Cory Henry and Bill Laurance, as well as Snarky collaborator Becca Stevens (she wrote the music backing Crosby’s lyrics on “By the Light of Common Day”) – provides a suitably shimmering sonic atmosphere for Crosby’s music, and his blend of electric and acoustic guitars and basses provides unobtrusive song-serving ear candy throughout. The other stars of the show are Crosby’s undiminished high tenor singing voice and his similarly undiminished abilities as a songwriter. “Lighthouse” is a late-career masterpiece. If you’ve ever cared about Crosby’s writing and singing, get this quick. If you haven’t, get this even quicker.
Speaking of late-career masterpieces, a peer and friend of Crosby’s has released one of his own.
The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir (1994 Rock Hall inductee) hasn’t offered an album of new material since Ratdog’s “Evening Moods” in 2000. He’s been keeping incredibly busy on the road, leading a variety of Dead-themed ensembles, but Weir’s songwriting and record-making side has long been neglected. Fitting, then, that he returns with an album that is as significant in his career as “Time Out of Mind” was in Bob Dylan’s.
“Blue Mountain” (Legacy/Columbia) is a beautiful, reverb-laden, haunting collection granted a billowing production setting that is the audio equivalent of the thick, foreboding air that precedes a serious summer storm. Working with a team that includes members of the National, hardcore troubadour Josh Ritter, and the Walkmen’s Walter Martin, among others, Weir offers some of the most beautiful – and often, beautifully forlorn - singing of his 50 year career.
“Blue Mountain” is ostensibly an album of “cowboy songs,” but what Weir is really up to here is indulging in the lonesome side of “high lonesome,” and it’s something he does incredibly well. His singing is so warm and immediate, so disarmingly heartfelt, that one feels a direct connection with both the singer and the song. “Lay My Lily Down,” “Stone Country,” “Gallop on the Run,” “What Ever Happened To Rose?” and “Cottonwood Lullaby” employ cowboy metaphors to summon a lonesome and open plain, but the honorable outlaws populating these songs aren’t on the run from the law so much as they are racing against time’s undignified march toward its inevitable conclusion. It’s enough to make a grown man cry. I should know.
“Blue Mountain” arrives like a record you’ve known and loved your whole life. You should add it to yours.