Whitaker Center, Harrisburg, PA
March 13, 2019
When I was around 10 years old or so, on television at the time they were using Teach Your Children in a commercial for something or other. I immediately loved it and latched onto that song, asking my mother who sang it, wanting it on cassette tape. It had spoken to me...because it was timeless and it says a lot, even in part in a commercial. And so I received my first CSN album for my birthday that year. I honestly can’t even remember if it was CSN or CSN&Y or Deja Vu or a Greatest Hits? Regardless, it had Teach Your Children as well as Our House on it, and it was a hell of a good start.
My mother also listened to The Hollies a bit, so I was also exposed to that good stuff as a kid. The commonality, of course, being Graham Nash, a vital harmony in both bands and the one who penned the song that grabbed me in my youth. I loved their harmonies. Not enough can really be said about good harmony. Some groups have such distinct harmonies, they’re almost familial and their combined tone serves as a stand out voice in and of itself. The Beatles, The Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, etc....Crosby, Stills, & Nash. It’s a wonderful thing.
So, this Christmas I needed a gift for my mother and nothing is better than a concert experience in her book; I stumbled across Graham Nash’s tour and found a small venue in Harrisburg where he would be performing and jumped on some tickets for her and myself. I am currently pregnant with my third child but at the time figured I wouldn’t be too pregnant to go by the time of the concert, so it was a doable wait. I saw he had been playing Hollies songs and classic CSNand/orY as well as his solo work during concerts, so it would be exciting to share that with my mother and I was sure she would enjoy it. Music is the gift that keeps on giving!
I had never been to this venue in Harrisburg before, The Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts. Overall, it was fairly easy to navigate to and the trip wasn’t a pain at all. The weather was good and there wasn’t much city driving involved, it was on the outer side of Harrisburg on Market Street. The parking garage was connected to the building so you could get to the theatre through the building, which was neat and nice for my near-waddle pace. We made it with a spare hour to grab some grub, so we hit up a Freshido restaurant nearby. I’m convinced it’s Korean food, even though the webs told my mother it is Hawaiian; my dish was called the Gangnam Style plate and there was bulgogi meat and kimchi? I rest my case. It was a little spicy but good and didn’t even give me heartburn, which was pleasantly surprising! So much winning!
We made it back in and found our seats after checking out the swag stop on the way in. There was the usual array of t-shirt, CD, and vinyl memorabilia but also a section of signed photographs, one of Joni Mitchell in a rearview mirror, signed by Nash, and copies of his new book “Our House” that just came out. Inside the theatre, actually the Sunoco Theatre inside the Whitaker Center, was about as big as The State Theatre, in State College, if you are familiar. It was quaint and lovely, with an orchestra section, where we were seated, and mezzanine and balcony sections that were directly on top of each other. They even had moody string lights along the balconies. We had a great view from our seats.
After some dimming of the house lights Nash and co. came out onto the stage to a cheering crowd. He greeted everyone immediately, waving to the balcony folks. He humbly thanked the Universe for bringing us all together at this moment in time. He said something akin to all they had were songs but they were “gonna sing the shit out of ‘em!” They opened with Pre-Roads Down, going next into Bus Stop which was exciting to witness with my mother. I was fairly sure he would play it because he has been but also really hoping he would because it was one from The Hollies I had heard a lot growing up. Afterward, he commented on the cheering, saying it really showed how old we were as a crowd, stating jokingly that we must be well into our 40s. He was pretty playful and funny the entire show.
Different artists do different things on stage and have different relationships with their audiences. Graham Nash had a casual and intimate way about him. The show was, in a way, a mini Story Tellers; Nash introduced most of his numbers with a little anecdote about the song’s conception. Some introductions were short, one liners, at times just the song title and/or the year he wrote it, while others were lengthier tales.
He started into I Used To Be a King after the quip “I wrote this right after breaking up with Joan” and then afterwards went into Wasted on the Way. Before Better Days he mentioned he wrote it for Anita Baker. Then Carried Away. Right Between the Eyes. Moving into Military Madness he said he was so tired of playing the song, not because it’s a bad song but because he wrote it about his dad leaving for WWII and the wars keep happening—-so he must keep singing.
He introduced his two man band right away, after the first or second song. It was impressive how well they harmonized together covering classic vocals with Nash that you were so accustomed to hearing with CSN/Y; my ears deemed it totally acceptable! Shane Fontayne, who he said was most notably English and had played lead guitar with another band in England as well as Sting and “more importantly for you Americans”, Bruce Springsteen. His keyboard player was introduced as being from a musical family, hailing from Lubbock, Texas, which got some cheers. To the cheers, he said “If you know, you know!” This was a little setlist foreshadowing.
Shane Fontayne was remarkable! It was fun watching him switch guitars from among his rack and recreate classic riffs. His guitar playing was superb and he did a lot of great emotive stuff, most notably on Wind on the Water, where he made sounds akin to a whale’s call, fitting to the song. Graham told the story of being off the coast of Africa on Crosby’s boat and having an encounter with a blue whale that was bigger than their 80 foot boat. He said that it was a near spiritual experience and he was inspired to write the song.
They did a really cool rendition of The Beatles’ song A Day in the Life, after which Graham noted that it was great and “if you were a singer wouldn’t you want to sing that song?” Agreed! Before Marrakesh Express, he told of a time he was in Africa, taking a train from Morocco to Marrekesh. He spoke of his writing and said “most of my songs come from ordinary moments” although something like this might not be too ordinary to us, to Graham Nash, it was! The band took a 20 minute break after this.
Coming back from break, Nash looks at Fontayne and playfully asks if he thinks they should really do this [next song]. To much delight, they break into Love the One You’re With! I was thrilled. I never would have expected to hear it, so it was perhaps my favorite number of the evening? Perhaps. Taken at All; Golden Days; Immigration Man: he tells of the time he was stopped at the gates after a trip to Canada and denied re-entry to America. They let Crosby and Stills in. Even Neil Young, he said, was allowed back in but he was denied. He was a mad Englishman as his friends laughed at him from the other side. He said he wrote Immigration Man before he even made it home.
Just a Song Before I Go was dedicated to the child of a woman that he had met on break. He shared how he wrote this one on a $500 bet from a low-level drug dealer whose house he was at while in Hawaii. He still has the $500 and said that the song became CSN’s most popular hit and had he known, he would have written a better song. The conception of Cathedral was, perhaps, the funniest tale of them all. He said that while in England touring with CSNY he had a day off after the last show. He chose to rent a Rolls Royce with a driver, find a dealer, and then drop acid, spending most of his day laying in the grass in the middle of Stone Henge, which was accessible at the time and wasn’t fenced up back in the day. He later made his way to the nearby Westminster Cathedral where he said he walked over top of a grave of a soldier and had the weirdest sensation in his legs, not from the acid, as he attested to knowing the affects of the drug. Upon inspection he noticed the day the man in the grave died was his birthday. “I don’t know if I was him or he was me or what?” but what followed was an ecstatic experience that led to the writing of Cathedral. It was interesting to learn that not much of that song was made up, which one would be led to believe, but rather gathered from a completely real experience by Nash.
He mentioned again about the ordinary moments inspiring his songs, and went into a tale of an ordinary “shitty rainy day” when he was simply out walking around with Joni Mitchell window shopping. Joni spotted an interesting vase in a window and bought it. We could excitedly see where this was going. He said they came home to a chilly house and he lit a fire, she filled the vase and then he sat down and wrote Our House.
As for the foreshadowing, the keyboard player was from Lubbock, Texas, which is, incidentally, where Buddy Holly hailed from. The three of them moved center stage and played a lovely harmonized rendition of Holly’s “Everyday” which was excellent. I had read they were doing this, but forgot all about it in the excitement so I was still pleasantly surprised. Their final number, which I was able to record (although I wish I had captured Love the One You’re With or even Everyday) was what I had expected, Teach Your Children. My mother went to hug me, but saw I was recording on my phone, although that didn’t stop us from exchanging happy glances and singing along. We had come full circle. A good time was had by all, even the baby who had been kicking away the entire concert.
Graham Nash at the Whitaker Center was truly a bucket list epic show. I am very grateful to have been able to experience it with my mother and especially in such a quaint venue. Nash’s intimate explanations and introductions to his songs were wonderful and insightful. I love when artists actually take the time to connect with their audiences like that, especially ones who have played for so many years. It really makes for a better show. His sharing of his writing process was insightful. Although somewhat less “ordinary” than the lay man’s moments, it was neat to see that most of his songs basically did come from ordinary days and events in his life, each was “a day in the life” of Graham Nash, if you will. Who wouldn’t want to sing about that?