"Reports of my obesity have been greatly exaggerated," Stephen Stills announced near the beginning of his performance at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Monday night. And, sure enough, even if the 44-year-old singer is not down to the fighting weight of his Buffalo Springfield days, neither is he still on his way to becoming a bookend for CS&N partner David Crosby.
What's more pertinent is that Stills well may have shed a pound or two during his set. Unlike the smug, self-absorbed performances that have become a hallmark of the Crosby, Stills & Nash experience, Stills' 70-minute show found him playing his still-sizable butt off. His singing and guitar playing packed an immediacy that shook the dust from the Stills standards that dominated.
His vocals on the opening "Love the One You're With" and the following few songs sounded mushy and uncontrolled, partly because of a miserable sound mix but chiefly, he explained, because he'd had a root canal done that afternoon.
The novocaine apparently wore off by the fifth song, a charged R&B arrangement of "Bluebird." Since it first appeared on the "Buffalo Springfield Again" album 21 years ago, Stills has treated the number to every form of overblown abuse in concert. But the terse, propulsive treatment he gave it Monday made him seem like a reformed man.
Backed by an able if sometimes overbearing trio of keyboards, bass and drums (the last played by Ian Wallace, once the "human locomotive" with David Lindley), Stills applied similar focus to the bouncy current CSN&Y pop hit "Got It Made," as well as "Dark Star," "Southern Cross" and a soul-revue encore rave-up of "For What It's Worth," with Stills and the audience shouting the "Stop! Hey!" chorus back and forth.
During a brief acoustic portion, Stills accompanied himself on the smuggling tale "Treetop Flier" and the dark, post-Kent State anthem "Find the Cost of Freedom," with the audience supplying the harmony parts on the latter.
Aside from this acoustic segment, it was often hard to discern Stills' six-string work because the backing instruments were inexplicably mixed much louder than his instrument in the sound system.
When his six-string did cut through--as on the gospel blues "Old Man Trouble," which also featured strong backup vocals from bassist Lenny McDaniel--his stinging, choked lines seemed a perfect counterpoint to his grainy, Texas-raised voice.