In April of 1968, after leaving Buffalo Springfield, but before joining CSN, Stephen Stills found himself in a New York recording session with then girlfriend Judy Collins. Stills wandered down the hall with an engineer and an acoustic guitar, and laying down a couple hundred-dollar bills, told the engineer Just roll tape. What he recorded in the ensuing hours was the first ever versions of what would become classics for Stephen Stills, CSN, CSNY, and Manassas. Almost 40 years later the tapes, rescued decades ago from a garbage bin, are finally remastered and released to the public.
The title and cover art effectively tell the story of this dusty gem. Captured fly-on-the-wall style in an impromptu live-in-the-studio burst after a Judy Collins session on which the 23-year-old Stephen Stills played, the soon-to-be ex-leader of Buffalo Springfield (and Collins's ex-boyfriend) unleashes unplugged, occasionally incomplete versions of songs he had recently written and wanted to get on tape. Discovered in 1978 and nearly discarded, the reels found their way to Graham Nash in 2003, who encouraged Stills to release them. He finally did so in 2007, nearly 40 years after the original session, and the result is the most revelatory album in Stills's bulging catalog. Even with remastering, the sound is on the crude side. Nevertheless, early takes of "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," "Helplessly Hoping," and "Wooden Ships," all of which would appear in far more polished versions on Crosby, Stills & Nash's self-titled debut, are sung with a passion and honesty seldom exposed by the singer/songwriter. Stills's voice sometimes cracks, his guitar work intermittently sounds muddy, and these are definitely works in progress, some of which never appeared on an official release. Yet the artist is caught arguably at the peak of his substantial talents, laying down soon-to-be-classic melodies while they were fresh in his head. Folk/rock historians and Stills fans will surely be thrilled with this nascent, unvarnished set. Though Just Roll Tape
may be too raw for some, it finds Stills at the crucial stage right before superstardom changed his--and popular music's--future forever. --Hal Horowitz