It's easy to forget that one of the '60s folk-rock movement's most influential acts existed for just two years. A classic supergroup-in-reverse, Buffalo Springfield formed in Los Angeles in '66, released three albums and plenty of influential tunes, then in '68 dissolved into a string of far more successful projects helmed by members Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Richie Furay (Poco). The little group left behind a hulking legacy, so it came as something of a surprise when Young announced on Saturday that Bonnaroo was "the biggest gig this band has ever done."
It was only Buffalo Springfield's seventh show together since they put aside decades-old quarrels earlier this month to bring their eclectic California sound back out on the road. (Bassist Rick Rosas and drummer Joe Vitale replaced deceased members Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin.) A little rust had gathered in those 40-odd dormant years, but for the most part, the Bonnaroo crowd was happy just to have them - and the band was happy to be there.
As their pipes loosened up and those generation-defining harmonies began to shine again over old singles like "Burned" and "On the Way Home," Furay seemed giddy, beaming widely in a Bonnaroo T-shirt. "We're Buffalo Springfield! We're from the past!" Young said as if they'd arrived in a time-traveling DeLorean.
Later, seemingly seizing upon a restlessness creeping through the audience, Young bent that endearing wryness to introduce the twangy, Stills-penned "Go and Say Goodbye." "You've probably heard this," Young joked. "It's the B-side of our first 45."
To the band's credit, the only audible complaints from the field were directed at the soundboard. "Turn it up! Turn it up! Turn it up!" one group began to shout, and they were right - the audio was too quiet a couple hundred yards out, flattening the laidback strum, lean rhythms, and warm vocals into a placid slab of often-acoustic Americana.
But eventually, Young took matters into his own hands. For "Mr. Soul," he picked up an electric axe and began to shred, slathering the Stones-referencing tune in distortion as he snarled the vocals with gusto.
The sudden influx of pumping blood seemed to quicken the pulse of the others onstage. Rosas started grooving, Vitale beat his kit, and Stills and Furay seemed just a bit awed. But they gave it back on longtime fan favorite "Bluebird," which morphed into a furious 10-minute guitar jam pitting Stills' more technical playing against Young's black grinding.
Then Furay aced a heartfelt rendition of his untouchable ballad "Kind Woman."
And then, at last, it was time. "Alright," said Young. "We're gonna do our hit. We had one."
But he didn't have to jog the crowd's memory this time. They performed the enduring anti-war anthem "For What It's Worth," written about Vietnam but easily applicable now, with a chorus of tens of thousands singing along. It was a positively memorable moment and, let's be frank, the reason most had come.
With a few minutes left in the set, Stills and Furay let the spotlight drift to where it was naturally inclined as they backed Young on a grunge-caked version of "Rockin' in the Free World." Turns out there was still room for surprise in Buffalo Springfield.
On the Way Home
Rock and Roll Woman
A Child's Claim to Fame
Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say It
Go and Say Goodbye
I am a Child
Hot Dusty Roads
Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing
For What It's Worth
Rockin' in the Free World