GRAY MATTER; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young display lifetimes of wisdom with an energy that belies the rockers' advanced stage.


When he was still a young rocker taking the music world by storm, Neil Young wrote a song that betrayed a depth of empathy unusual among his contemporaries. "Old man, take a look at my life," he sang in the eerie voice that even in 1971 sounded equal parts angel and demon, "I'm a lot like you."

That tune, "Old Man" -- an imagined dialogue between himself at 24 and an elderly neighbor -- showed he saw age as numerical happenstance, that the years bring wisdom worth getting to know. As his Woodstock-era brethren warned against trusting anyone over 30, Young was busy plowing the rich common ground between youth and age.

There's always been something inexplicable about Young -- the haunting voice, the jarring syncopations, the wild-eyed ferocity onstage -- but in those days, what set him apart most might have been his simple awareness that he, too, would grow old.

It's a good thing he knew so well.

At the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert at Washington's MCI Center Thursday night, much of the band's music read like a surprisingly personal letter from past to present, and Young's band mates had him to thank for energizing a 3 1/2-hour show that, in spite of occasional lapses, left 20,000-odd eager fans buzzing.

The legendary group is on tour for the first time in 26 years -- during their last road trip together, President Nixon resigned -- and, as you might expect, the theme for an evening with such old friends was time. How do you weather it? What does it bring? Does it diminish or deepen life as it passes? Each of us must work through his own answers, and in that respect, little differentiated the '60s icons on stage from the thousands who'd paid up to $200 a seat to hear them play.

As early as 5 on a warm evening, ticket holders gathered amid the mingling fumes of bus exhaust and carefully hidden marijuana. Scores of amply grown adults -- decked in everything from business suits to peasant skirts, from neckties to seemed to glow with youthful wonderment.

Dave Fritz, 38, pulled from his pocket a cellophane bag containing the pick-guard from his own guitar, which he hoped to get Young to sign. "Have you seen him yet?" he asked in a hushed tone. Fritz and his wife Kathy, 47, lined up at 4 a.m. the day tickets went on sale last November. "I've seen Neil three times already," said Fritz, "and I can tell you right now, it was worth the wait."

All around, the multi-generational pull of the band that once advised "teach your children well" was easily seen. Errin Hasty, 27, of Virginia Beach -- there with her mother, Judi Mains, 50 -- said she's absorbed the sounds of CSNY from birth. Silver-haired Bill Brown, 48, from Winchester, Va., saw the band when it played the area in 1974 and was passing his musical tastes along to daughter Jessica, 19, an amateur folkie who has sung Stills' "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" since the age of 5.

Susan Hough, 42, had Ashley Poliak, 11, in tow. "It's a great chance for her to hear some fabulous musicians," said Hough of her wide-eyed daughter.

The band has been playing to sellout crowds, grossing more than $1 million per show, and with concession stands hawking $40 T-shirts and $200 bomber jackets, that figure is hardly a surprise.

But with Young the youngest band member at 54, critics have been posing understandable and interesting questions. At their age, can these guys still rock? Should they? Does the group have a relevant message a quarter-century past their heyday? Is the whole thing worth doing at all?

Often Thursday night, the band showed its age. As Crosby belted out "Almost Cut My Hair," you realized he, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, indeed, have not.

Video-screen close-ups showed a Nash who was working awfully hard to be young: His barefoot look didn't evoke halcyon Summer of Love days so much as their obsolescence, and are those -- gasp! -- dentures he's wearing? Some video shots of Crosby's physique, in profile, might have been more charitably composed.

There were moments, though, in which time seemed not to have dimmed skill at all. Young's dark energy -- he humped back and forth across the stage like a bug-eyed Quasimodo on speed -- was an engine that anchored and drove his band mates. Crosby's delicate finger-picking on "Guinevere" felt fresh, as did his vocal duet with Nash on the same tune.

And when Stills reached his lengthy guitar solo on "Judy Blue Eyes," he not only cranked it with manic energy and a thundering rhythm but also seemed to be exploring new possibilities along the way.

Even some of the musical failures brought new dynamics to life in an arena Stills repeatedly called "a great-sounding venue."

On "Woodstock," where Stills 30 years ago could easily have knocked off the vocal high notes, he opted, at the last moment, for safer ones in a lower register. Even on his piercing anthem "After The Gold Rush," Young -- hammering away on a pipe organ that would have done "The Munsters" proud -- made a similar choice.

Out in the dark arena, the crowd seemed genuinely touched to hear the musicians facing, and owning up to, the limitations time has wrought. On those tunes, the audience was singing along; where their heroes failed, the crowd filled in, soaring to the same notes they've been hearing on record for a generation and more.

Most surprising, though, was the wary feel of the band's approach to its own art, as if it were a legacy they feared to tarnish. For the first half of the 29-song show, the paunchy Crosby, the white-haired Nash and Stills, who looked every inch the surfer-dude gone to seed, circled their anthems nervously. Dozens of familiar lines had peculiar resonance, none more so than Stills' lyric in "Judy Blue Eyes": "Don't let the past/ Remind us of what we are not now."

But that tension -- the towering specter of their own rock history against the surprise of present-moment discovery -- helped define the show and make it fresh.

The band edged into "Carry On," Young's "Southern Man" and Stills' "49 Bye-Byes," which featured a start so awkward they had to start over. ("Five-yard penalty for clipping," joked Crosby.) But on each piece, once the singers heard each other, and individual voices coalesced, they seemed to generate a confident group dynamic. Each song carried more freight as it went along.

Over its first several weeks, the tour has garnered mostly rave reviews, but some critics have derided what they see as the spectacle of sixtysomething geezers cranking out moribund hits by rote.

But such predictable reactions perhaps miss the core dynamic of this show: that tension between fear and surety that made songs like Nash's "Our House," Crosby's "Guinevere" and the shuffling group number "Marrakesh Express" exercises in discovery. The 60ish folk rockers were rummaging in the past to find something new, and most of the gestures felt fresh.

The audience vibrated to that frequency. A gray-haired man in his 50s, both ears pierced, swayed back and forth in a '60s-style flow. A man in a green pinstripe suit, cell phone wedged between shoulder and ear, jammed on air guitar. A teen-age girl rested her head on a boyfriend's shoulder.

What they saw was a supergroup's tour through its own history, one precious moment at a time. And in the end, the most telling of those moments might have been an updating of "Old Man."

Seated on stools, four across and kindled by soft back-lighting, they all had the look of white-haired sages. "Old man take a look at my life," they sang, "I'm a lot like you./I need someone to love me the whole day through."

What Young knew three decades ago they all now seem to understand: that time can enrich as it takes away, and in so doing, can dignify us all.

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