"'Creative Loafing' oughta be the name of my company," says Stephen Stills, calling in from a tour stop in Norfolk, Va. "I love that." He sounds relaxed, cracking jokes and enjoying himself.
Stills is working his way down the East Coast on a solo tour, making a two-day stop in Charlotte. 2005's Man Alive, his first solo album in 14 years, will be the main focus of the tour. "It's the best record I've made since forever that I can listen all the way through and not wince at something," he says, laughing heartily. "Much to the delight of my 4-year-old, I've discovered if I play the drums to the entire thing, it's the best aerobic workout I can do."
Though it got good reviews, Stills says he "hooked up with the wrong people in Miami" and the record didn't get much exposure. "My mom bought one, from the grave," he says, cackling.
It's a mix of old and new. There's an electric studio version of Still's originally acoustic "Spanish Suite," featuring Herbie Hancock. "Round the Bend" features Neil Young and Stills on a rockin' track that sounds more like the Fabulous Thunderbirds than CSNY. The old CSN gets a nod with a little help from Graham Nash on the save-the-world-themed "Feed The People." The bluesy "Wounded World" with Young sounds like '70s vintage Stills. He even pays a visit to Cajun country with "Acadienne."
Most of those will make the list, along with some Stills staples. After playing "Helplessly Hoping," his band goes off for Stills' acoustic set. "Now that I'm working without Crosby, God bless him, at least I get two songs," he says, laughing. Stills throws in what he calls "some good strong ones" before the band comes back for "Southern Cross." He'll toss in a few new ones, as well as the standards he's done in concerts for years. "They have to have some of that," he says. "I'm not doing a Neil Young here. He doesn't sing anything old."
The swipes at his former colleagues are good-natured. CSN has put all their differences behind them and are touring again, or trying to. A recent tour of Australia was canceled -- not because of acrimony, but illness. "David fell off his motorcycle about 10 years ago when he was much too old to be riding motorcycles in the first place," Stills says. "Then he got pneumonia this year over the winter, coughed so hard that he wrecked the surgery and had to have it redone." Crosby couldn't lift his arm and has to do rehab, only for his arm this time, and Stills says the tour will probably will be rescheduled between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He also keeps in touch with Young, touring with him last summer. "Neil has his impulses, and suddenly we have to do that and I'm a part of that."
But this tour is all his music, tweaked a bit in places. Sideman Jay Boy Adams, a West Texas singer/songwriter along the lines of Guy Clark or Joe Ely, says Stills has resurrected "Love The One You're With" as a funky tune the way Stevie Wonder did it. But Stills says that Wonder never did it. "It's the Luther Vandross version," Stills corrects. "He lives in Comfort, Texas," says Stills of sideman Adams. "And as we all know these days, Texans can be vastly misinformed," he cackles evilly. But then he seems to realize others might be listening in: "Going through the South, I'd just as soon not have bloodhounds on my bus."
Politics is still an important part of Stills life. "Feed The People" sounds like a protest song he could have recorded in the 1970s. "It's not a protest song, it's social commentary," Stills says. "Protest was what we did last summer with Neil." Stills and Young decided to take it over the top, singing every protest song they knew. "There were a couple where I'd sort of mosey on back behind my amplifier," Stills says.
But Stills won't back off. This time out, he'll be resurrecting "Isn't It About Time," a strong anti-war song from his '73 Down the Road record when he was billed as Manassas with Stephen Stills. The song is so old and obscure Stills says he can call it a new song and put it out again because it's so pertinent. "The jungle so far away/Blood baked into blackened soil/How many tons a day/Isn't it about time we learned?"
"Just substitute the word desert for jungle," he says, "and it's the same story, unfortunately."
He may not have mellowed, but he says he's learned to limit himself on protest songs, putting only one or two to an album. "As for proselytizing, I'll save that for bio-diesel. My whole tour runs on bio-diesel, all the buses and trucks."
Now, instead of the rank odor of diesel fumes when his bus cranks up after the show, the air smells faintly of avocado and palm oil. But he's got even more style when it comes to choosing a personal ride. Dismissing hybrids as looking like they were made in East Germany before the wall fell, he'd convert a fancy car to turbo-diesel. "I'd get a Bentley," he says, laughing. "I like my cushy English cars."
Stephen Stills plays the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte for two nights -- Tuesday, May 8 and Wednesday, May 9th at 8 p.m. Tickets are $60. Jay Boy Adams opens, promoting his record, Shoe Box, then backs Stills.