Graham Nash, Natalie Merchant, Steve Earle and Iris DeMent are among the headliners at this year’s SummerTyne Americana Festival at Sage Gateshead.
The line-up includes an eclectic mix of legendary Americana heavyweights, cross-over artists and breakthrough talent from both sides of the Atlantic.
The former member of supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash (Graham Nash) will open proceedings in the main Sage One hall on Friday 20 July. He will be joined by special guest multi-GRAMMY award-winning Shawn Colvin.
Mick Burgess caught up with Graham Nash ahead of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s return to the Sage Gateshead to discuss his appearance at the forthcoming SummerTyne Americana Festival, his 50 years in the music business as well as his memories of performing at Woodstock in 1969.
You`re over in the UK for a run of shows very soon. How do you feel ahead of the tour?
I feel fine thank you. I`m alive. I`ve lived for the last 50 years in America so it`s always a little nerve wracking coming back but my fans have always made me feel really welcome
The opening night is up North at The Sage in Gateshead. It`s a fair few years since you last played up here. Can you remember the last time?
Gateshead is such a great music town along with Newcastle. They are both great places to play. I think the last time I played there was back in 2013 with Crosby Stills and Nash. It`s a wonderful place to play and I`m looking forward to coming back.
You`ll be headlining the Americana Summer Tyne Festival which also features Steve Earl and Natalie Merchant amongst others. Will you get the chance to see anyone else at the festival or is it a case of doing your show and then head off to the next city?
Touring is usually like that, you have to be as efficient as you can. Times have changed and people like me don’t make as much money on records any more and so live performances are usually the way to go.
How far ahead do you get together to rehearse and prepare for a tour like this?
I don`t have any time to rehearse this time. I was only on tour a month or two ago so we`ll just continue going from there. As far as the setlist is concerned, it`s always been a rather delicate dance because I`ve written so many songs and some of them have got quite famous.
You have a career spanning over six decades. How do you go about assembling a setlist for a tour?
I can go where ever I want with the history of my music. My guitarist Shane Fontayne knows every one of them and my B3 organ player Todd Caldwell knows them too. Sometimes I`ll just say that I feel like doing Bus Stop tonight and we`ll go ahead and do it. It`s that spontaneous. We go where it feels right on the night. I like to mix things up.
Are there any in the set that you haven`t done for a while?
I think we might do The Sleep Song this time. It`s a lovely song that I wrote for my first solo album, Songs For Beginners. It`s been going down a bomb at the shows so far.
After so long on the road do you still get that buzz walking out in front of an audience to play these songs?
Yes, I do. I just love that moment. I`m a musician and I need to communicate with my audience. I need them to know that I want to be there, making music for them. I`ve been to see bands where they just didn`t care about the audience. I have to include them because that`s who I am, I want to include everybody.
You have a new album out, Over The Years, featuring 30 songs over 2 CD`s. Are the songs on the first disc re-recorded versions or the originals?
They are the original versions all remastered. I think they sound fantastic as the technology keeps getting better. I`ve been the archivist of all of our music and I have the original master tapes. I keep them in a temperature-controlled halon gas vault and the sound on them is incredible. Just remember though, no amount of technology can make a bad song a good one. You`ve got to start with something good.
Did you encounter any technical problems with the remastering process bearing in mind the age of some of the tapes?
In the past I`ve had to bake tapes which is against everything you`ve heard about tapes. There was a batch of tapes made in the early `70`s where the oxide was stuck to the tape with a type of glue and the glue broke down and the oxide started shedding from the tapes. I`ve had a couple like that in the past but not with anything important on and fortunately none of the tapes I`ve used for Over The Years had any problems like that.
If you could squeeze one more onto there what would you include?
That`s really difficult, good question. Holy Toledo, I don`t even know how to answer that. Maybe I`d add Don`t Say Goodbye. That`s the song that I did with Crosby Stills Nash and Young on the American Dream album. It didn`t quite make the musical journey that I wanted to present so I had to leave it off.
All of the tracks are remastered apart from I Used To Be King and Better Days both from Songs for Beginners (1971). Why were these the only two not remastered?
They sounded great to me so I didn`t feel that they needed it.
Disc 2 will probably be the one your long-time fans will be particularly interested in. This features a bunch of demo recordings including an early version of Marrakesh Express dating back to 1968. That was originally intended for use by your previous band The Hollies. Why did they reject it?
I`d written a decent song called King Midas In Reverse but it had only got into the Top 30 not the Top 5 which is what The Hollies were always expecting so they didn`t quite trust my musical direction. I played them my demo of Marrakesh Express and they made a record of it but it was flat and had no energy in it. It needed the energy of a train and The Hollies version just didn`t have it and somewhere in the bowels of Abbey Road is a version of The Hollies doing Marrakesh Express and quite frankly I hope we never hear it.
Their loss was the gain of Crosby Stills and Nash as that was your very first single. How did you feel when you scored such a big hit with your first song?
It was Crosby that said that it was a great song and he said The Hollies were wrong so he wanted us to record it which I`m glad we did as it was a big hit for us, which was great.
There`s a total of 15 demos on the second disc and 12 have never been released before. How did you have all of these intriguing early versions of classic songs hidden away for so long?
I`m the archivist of CSN`s music and I have an entire data base of all of the recordings that we did. I always thought that the actual physical tape was very important and that`s why I`ve taken care of them for all of these years. I just wanted to wait for the right time to release them, which is now.
How long did it take you to trawl through the tapes to find the versions that you liked the best?
It took me two months from start to finish. I like to get the job done.
Is there much left or have you used them all up now?
There`s so much in vault. I`ve just been listening to CSNY at the Fillmore East in 1970 and we recorded in multi-track for a couple of nights and we also filmed the shows too so that might be the next big project.
Were any songs in there that you`d forgotten that you`d recorded?
Not recently but when I was putting together the 4CD CSN&Y set, I found a snippet of song that Neil Young had written about Rosemary Woods who was Richard Nixon`s secretary and Neil wrote the song which is only about a minute and a half and he only did it once but we had it on tape. I called Neil up and told him and he said to go ahead and use it. I think it was called Goodbye Dick or something.
There`s a couple of duplicate versions on the disc including Marrakesh Express, Simple Man and Our House. Did you decide to include both versions to give your fans an insight into how the song developed from a demo to the final recorded version?
I think people who love music are fascinated to hear the transition from a simple demo all the way to a finished record. A lot of people really enjoy that. There is something magical about demos.
Chicago sounds just as imposing just with your voice and piano as the full band version. What inspired you to write that?
It`s proving to be quite popular that. The truth is it makes me feel great and it makes me feel sad. It`s great that my music is still appreciated after 50 years but it`s sad that I have to do Chicago, Military Madness and Immigration Man. If that`s not relevant today, what is? We haven`t learned our lessons from the past and the world is an increasingly dangerous place. The rise of the right wing over in Europe and America is very disturbing.
Compiling a collection like this must have been a real labour of love for you? Did it bring back lots of memories for you?
It certainly brought back a lot of memories although I`m not the sort of person who likes to look back on things and I`m more interested in the songs I`m writing today but I did find it quite interesting looking back on my music and I am beginning to think that I can write a decent tune or two.
Will there be detailed sleeve notes giving information about each of the songs?
There`s complete notes saying where everything was recorded and when so there`s plenty of information for people to read while they listen to the music.
How Did You End Up Working With David Crosby and Steven Stills in Crosby Stills and Nash?
David Crosby was at a show by The Hollies on December 8th in 1967 at the London Palladium and by December 10th I was in Los Angeles with David and Steven. I heard David and Steven sing back in late 1967 at Joni Mitchell`s house and heard that vocal blend and I realised that once that sound came into creation I knew that I`d have to go back and leave The Hollies, leave my family and friends and my equipment and my money. I just came to America with my guitar and that was it.
You have been inducted into the Rock `n` Roll Hall of Fame twice, once with Crosby Stills and Nash (1997) and once with The Hollies (2010). There can`t be that many other artists that can make that claim. Do awards like that mean a lot to you?
We never got into this to get awards, we got into this to meet ladies. Look at the people who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from Ray Charles to The Beatles, Elvis and The Everly Brothers, Little Richard and Aretha Franklin. All of these incredible people and they think I belong in there? They must be out of their minds. I thought CSN would get in eventually as we were culturally and musically quite important but I was very chuffed when The Hollies were inducted as it had been such a long time since we had started making records. It was 45 years and thought it`d never happen so I was so pleased when we were inducted and I was particularly pleased for my friend, Allan Clarke, the lead singer of The Hollies.
Talking of performing with The Hollies and Crosby Stills and Nash again. Is the door still open for that at some point for you?
No, I don`t think so. That part of my life is over. If CSN or CSN&Y or The Hollies never made another note of music then we can certainly be proud of what we have done over the last 50 years.
You performed at Woodstock in 1969. That has become an iconic milestone in the history of music. How did it feel to be right in the middle of that?
We knew a month before that 20,000 people were coming. Three weeks before it was 50,000 and a week before it was a quarter of a million people and we knew that it was going to be important but had no idea it was going to be THAT important.
How did you manage with your unearthly time slot of 3:00 in the morning?
We were just high. The first thing we did was find John Sebastian, go into his tent and smoke marijuana. It kept getting later by the second but we went out there, early in the morning and did our set and the rest is history. I hear that Warner Brothers are putting out a 50th anniversary movie. There was three days of music but the original movie was only 3 hours long so there`s a lot of footage that hasn`t been seen before. It turned out to be quite an interesting event.
Years later you performed at another historic show, Live Aid in America. How did that compare to your experience at Woodstock?
You have to give it to Bob Geldof, that was an incredible thing he pulled off.
How did you end up playing two sets?
I don`t really know. We just did what we were told and ended up playing twice. I loved Live Aid. It was incredible to play at that
You were an original member of The Hollies and then formed Crosby Stills and Nash. You`ve had hit records, awards, played at huge festivals. You must have had many highlights across your career. What are the main highlights for you?
There`s an American one and an English one. When we were asked to sing Happy Birthday to Bill Clinton in the grounds of the White House that was a special moment. When Queen Elizabeth awarded me the OBE at Buckingham Palace was a very proud moment for me but I was probably more pleased for my parents. My Mum and Dad would have flipped out to be in Buckingham Palace.
After this run of shows in the UK and the release of your album, Over The Years, what do you have lined up for the coming months?
I`m on tour for five weeks then take a couple of weeks off and have a holiday in Scotland then back to my apartment in New York and get on with the rest of my life. I`ll be working on a new record while I`m on tour and we`ll be off and running again. We hope to have the new album out sometime next year.
Graham Nash is one of the headliners of the Summer Tyne Americana Festival at The Sage and will be appearing on Friday 20th July 2018. Tickets are on sale now via www.summertyne.co.uk or by calling the Box Office on 0191 443 4661.
Words: Mick Burgess
Header Photo: Amy Grantham