Tom Ross: Neil Young still 'Rockin' in the Free World'

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Most of my rock'n'roll heroes are rushing toward senior citizen status. But I rediscovered the passion and fire that characterized rock music in another era at Red Rocks Amphitheater on July 20.

Four guys in their sixties revived the protest music of the late 1960s, when Crosby Stills, Nash and Young thrilled an audience of aging hippie usedtabees in the foothills above Denver. The band played to three large crowds in four nights last week, proving that without a doubt, the Woodstock Generation is headquartered in Colorado. And further proving, that when the stars align, its members can be coaxed out of hibernation to roar their indignity at a world gone astray.

I'll never grow tired of hearing Stills attempt to sing "Suite Judy Blue Eyes," even though he lost the ability to hit the high notes at least a decade ago. And the familiar steel guitar intro (originally recorded for the band by Jerry Garcia) is always a welcome return to "Teach Your Children." But I didn't have expectations for an epic performance with all the power necessary to revive a social consciousness movement.

I guess I underestimated the renewal that a near-death experience can bring to an artist like Neil Young. Young survived a brain aneurysm in the spring of 2005. Several months later, he was collaborating with filmmaker Jonathan Demme, in a concert film, "Heart of Gold." Recorded at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, it caught Young performing songs that communicated his love for family and friends -- messages he almost didn't get to send.

It is a moving concert film, but in the lyrics of the songs, Young seems almost resigned to growing old.

It was a different Neil Young who strode onstage at Red Rocks Thursday night with the lights of Denver sparkling below. He was ready to roar.

Neil Young is 60 now. David Crosby turns 65 next month, Stills is 61 and Nash, his hair gone white, is 64.

Yet, for me, these four musicians, performing and recording, alone or together, will always symbolize my own coming of age.

I can still recall peeling the cellophane off the first Crosby, Stills, and Nash album in 1969 -- the smell of the vinyl and the mesmerizing sound when I put it on the turntable of my parents' "high-fi." For the first time I heard the genius of Stills' blend of acoustic steel string and electric guitars melding with the seamless harmonies of Crosby and Nash.

Those sounds, those lyrics, spun my head on my shoulders and changed me forever.

I know I paid less than $4 for my first concert ticket to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in Madison, Wis. I was still in high school in the fall of 1970, but very attuned to the protests against the Viet Nam War that were taking place at the time on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. Given the events of the time, it was an emotional crowd that surged into the Dane County Coliseum for the show. National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University had gunned down student protesters on May 4. Shots fired by the troops that day killed four protesters and wounded nine more. Four million college students cross the country acted out their shock and anger through strikes and protests.

When I think back on it, it's difficult to believe that it really happened at an American university.

I can still visualize Nash walking on stage in Madison in a blue denim shirt and American flag tie knotted at his neck. Crosby and Young wore their trademark fringed buckskin jackets and Stills was wearing a black blazer over a white shirt.

The first Crosby, Stills and Nash album had come out in 1969, and Young had since joined the super group. When the musicians performed "Ohio," a bitter remembrance of the events not six months in the past at Kent State, the crowd erupted and began chanting the refrain -- "Four dead in Ohio."

I think last week's performance at Red Rocks tapped into some of that same energy. The concert series has been dubbed the "Freedom of Speech Tour," and CSNY perform on a stage decorated with the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. They dedicate some of their songs to American war veterans.

The music press is giving Young credit for re-energizing his old band mates with the powerfully critical songs in his recent CD release, "Living With War." I think they are correct that Young's energy, and his unswerving commitment to his art are moving a band of aging rockers forward. However, I think the tracks from Young's new CD are most significant in that they provide a modern context for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's body of work promoting peace and social consciousness that spans nearly four decades.

Young alienated some members of his audience last week, but what matters more than his public criticism of George Bush is the fact that in America, "We the People...." are free to levy criticism against our government.

It's a freedom that is worth singing about.

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