STEPHEN STILL’S MANASSAS – ” Manassas ” Classic Album Released 46 Years Ago Today

Posted: April 12, 2018 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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In 1972, Stephen Stills formed a new band called ‘Manassas’ and on April 12th they released their debut double LP of the same name.
The album debuted on the Top LP’s chart for the week ending April 29th, 1972 and eventually peaked at #4 in June. Stills‘ album shared the Top 10 with an album by David Crosby and Graham Nash (Graham Nash David Crosby) and an album by Neil Young (Harvest), and as you know, all were members of the quartet Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Manassas marked a critical comeback for Stills, calling it a “sprawling masterpiece” and Rolling Stone saying it was “reassuring to know that Stills has some good music still inside him”.

By 1972, what we call classic rock was pretty much peaking—though nobody at the time knew it. Except maybe Stephen Stills. The band and double-album he piloted and released that year—both named Manassas—now seem pivotal. Manassas brilliantly summed up the remarkable 1960s creative surge that revitalized rock’s roots and encouraged experimentation just when it was at its crest.

The top-flight outfit Stills assembled in late 1971 and named for a bloody two-part Civil War battle (the album’s cover shot was taken on that battlefield) could nimbly navigate damn near every polyglot style rock was evolving– from blues “Jet Set” to bluegrass “Fallen Eagle”, country rock “Don’t Look At My Shadow” to Caribbean beats “Medley”, folk-rock “Johnny’s Garden” to metal “Right Now”. Jamming out complex, textured arrangements in the studio, they successfully translated them to stages in Europe and the US. But Stills always felt that Manassas struggled for recognition because his handlers wanted him back in the gold rush that Crosby Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young) generated.

So it all begn when Hillman and Stills accidentally crossed paths in Cleveland, they both glimpsed opportunity. Stills’ bounteous talents and fierce competitive drive almost ensured he would overshadow nearly any setting he was in, but he was discouraged by his solo ventures. He needed a creative ally he respected, someone who’d push back but not combust or split.

A few weeks later, Stills called Hillman and invited him down to Miami’s famed Criteria Studios, where engineer-producer Tom Dowd had shepherded Derek and the Dominos‘ monumental jam-fuelled Layla sessions the year before. As it happens, the producers for what would become Manassas worked on it too.

The stage was set to replace the sterile studio feel Stills hated with the onstage improvising looseness he loved. He had his co-pilot.

Chris Hillman, who may be rock history’s best-ever second banana after dealing with McGuinn and Parsons were hard-to-beat baptisms of fire was secure enough in his own creativity to deliver. He would co-write two songs for Manassas (Both of Us, It Doesn’t Matter), help Stills wrangle others into shape, and supply his subtle, pure-toned harmonies throughout.

As Stephen Stills explained, “I basically wanted a partner, somebody who had a sense of songs. Chris invented the phrase ‘lyric police,’ and was a tremendous help. But I was still on that real powerful, energetic ‘Let’s go, I know what I’m doing’ kinda thing. Chris realized it was my band, and that was OK for him.”

From the shambling Burritos came two key talents.

Violinist Byron Berline was a bluegrass vet who’d clocked time with stars like Bill Monroe and Dillard and Clark. Fallen Eagle, a breakneck bluegrass protest song against ranchers killing our endangered national symbol, puts his dazzling, keening fiddle and Hillman’s virtuoso mandolin in the forefront.

Al Perkins learned to play Hawaiian steel guitar at nine, mastered the dobro and pedal steel, performed with country and western bands, then shifted gears to tour his native west Texas as a rock guitar slinger. He supports or duels with Stills on all his axes. On Jesus Gave Love Away For Free, his aching steel solos swell and sigh; on Don’t Look at My Shadow, they glide with glee. On “Jet Set,” he plugs into effects to go grungy and deliver slashing, whiplash blues in Duane Allman fashion to counter Stills‘ gurgling wah-wah. He plays both steel and guitar on Song of Love.

Perkins, Stills, and Hillman take their guitar army acoustic for “Johnny’s Garden”, where their loosely braided, ever-shifting lines gently nudge Stills‘ yearning vocal.

The rest of the cast came from Stills‘ solo albums and tours.

Bassist Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels brought the Caribbean feels Stills craved, as the burbling line on “Song of Love” demonstrates. But he could nail the bottom hard on blues-rockers like “Jet Set.”

Keyboardist Paul Harris, a session vet, could play almost any style; with Hillman’s adept rhythm guitar, his keys became the session’s sonic glue. Latin percussionist Joe Lala co-founded Blues Image (Ride Captain Ride) and sang with gritty, soulful conviction. He vocally challenges Stills on Cuban Bluegrass, and delivers the pulsating Latin rhythms Stills adored throughout.

Drummer Dallas Taylor was Stills’ running buddy—and a wild card. He played on CSN’s first two albums and tours; they fired him because his substance abuse rivaled the Grievous Angel’s. But this bad boy had exactly what Stills wanted on drums: he could float, dance, or slam it home.

What was slated to be Stills’ third solo album had morphed completely. The band’s chemistry clicked almost instantly, and its boundless energy and chops meshed with Stills’ vision and discipline. A few weeks of jamming out arrangements fused the wildly diverse material and sounds into a sum greater than its parts. They came out of it as a fierce, tuned machine.

No wonder Bill Wyman, who co-wrote Love Gangster with Stills and played bass for the track, said he’d leave the Stones to join Manassas. Hillman understood why: “We were always more of a band than people thought. Stills wouldn’t have been the same without us, that’s for sure. Manassas was the best band Stills ever played in.”

The album ends with a final stark jolt. Blues Man finds Stills alone with an acoustic guitar, like the host of a wild party sitting amid the wreckage after it’s over. He channels everything he ever absorbed from his revered blues masters into his gritty, anguished vocal and nimble fingerpicking to sketch a raw, painfully dark elegy for three of his friends. Jimi Hendrix, Al Wilson (Canned Heat), and Duane Allman had all recently died.

On stage, Manassas gained fame for its nearly three-hour shows opening with an opening rock set, followed by Stills playing solo acoustic, Hillman and Perkins playing bluegrass, and the band then returning for country, more rock and an acoustic finish. After touring, Hillman took several weeks away to record a reunion album with the Byrds, his pre-Burritos band.

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