Listening to……Manassas

As Joni Mitchell once memorably observed, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?” and for me, this was certainly true of Manassas.  This was a 7-piece band formed by Stephen Stills and ex-Byrd Chris Hillman in the wake of the first Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young breakup. 

The avowed intention was to bring together  under one roof all the musical influences they could muster – For Hillman, that meant folk, bluegrass and country, whilst for Stills, it meant blues, latin, rock and folk.  The personnel of the band were chosen/invited with this diversity in mind, with several of the players having formed part of Stills’ band as he toured behind his second solo album. ; Joe Lala’s exuberant latin percusssion sat alongside Dallas Taylor’s solid rock drums.  Stills’ bluesy guitar licks dovetailed with Al Perkins’ pedal steel and Paul Harris’ piano and when Manassas went acoustic as they often did, guest musicians like Byron Berline (fiddle) were drafted in to play alongside Stills’ soulful acoustic playing and Hillman’s mandolin.  I suspect that for Stills, Manassas represented much more of a ‘band’ than had been the case with CSNY and it also seems likely that the egos that ruined that band were less of an issue here.

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The first Manassas album was a double on vinyl and each of its four sides had a different theme, with rock and latin influences to the fore on Side One, blues on Side 4 and, inbetween, a lot of country, bluegrass and country rock.  The songs – nearly all written by Stills –  ranged from his attempts to channel Mississippi Delta bluesmen like Robert Johnson, through to Latin fiestas like ‘Cuban Bluegrass’ and typical mid-tempo country rockers like ‘So begins the task’.  Hillman helped out with ‘Both of us bound to lose’ and ‘It doesn’t matter’, but the overall impression was of the massive diversity Stills could conjure up.  The album sold well but there remained a sense that Manassas were almost a band in search of an identity. 

Stills was also dogged by the fact that the media were  obsessed with CSNY and anything else  Stills did was  perhaps seen as a vanity project and somehow of lesser worth, although strangely, this attitude didn’t seem to apply to Neil Young, who had churned out  ‘Harvest’ at the same time that Manassas were rehearsing and recording their first album.

Manassas toured heavily in both Europe, America and elsewhere during  1972 and the shows, which took in songs from Stills solo albums, Hillman’s years as a Byrd and old Buffalo Springfield tunes were considered a huge success.  By 1973, when they reconvened to record the tracks that would emerge as ‘Down the road’, the second Manassas album, much had changed.  Stills was under ongoing pressure to kiss & make up with the rest of CSNY, Hillman had been offered megabucks to form a country-rock supergroup with Richie Furay & John David Souther, there was more, and more debilitating drug use in the band and the material & performances significantly failed to spark.  ‘Down the Road’ sold poorly and everyone moved on to other projects.

Over the years, Manassas have become a band that everyone appears to appreciate more with hindsight.  People still discover the first album like some hidden gem and marvel at some of the songs……which brings us to ‘Pieces’ , a third Manassas release coming some 36 years after the last one and essentially a collection of out-takes and alternate versions of existing songs.  Also included are some of the earliest sessions the band did, with Lala, Perkins, Byron Berline and Hillman joining Stills on some bluegrass standards and Burrito Brothers tunes like ‘Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music’.

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To be honest, ‘Pieces’ has its downsides – for one thing it’s only 40-odd minutes in length and maybe the bluegrass stuff is a bit too strong a flavouring in the mix – but it has to be said that a lot of the unreleased stuff, like ‘Witching Hour’, ‘Lies’ and ‘High & Dry’ is infinitely better than many of the tracks that saw the light of day on ‘Down the road’.  In any case it’s a welcome companion piece to the other 2 albums and certainly adds some lustre to the whole Manassas saga.  Stills has also promised the release of some live recordings, so the tale may not be over just yet.

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