Manassas were the first band Stephen Stills involved himself with after the breakup of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He'd recorded a pair of solo albums, but forming this group with ex- and future Byrd and former Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman, pedal steel guitarist Al Perkins, Joe Lala from Blues Image, the CSNY rhythm section of Dallas Taylor and Calvin "Fuzzy" Samuels, and session man Paul Harris turned out to be a dream band, for a time. The unit released two albums on Atlantic: its self-titled debut in 1971 (which is widely regarded as a classic) and a less successful follow-up entitled Down the Road in 1972. Stills' and Rhino's Pieces assemblage of Manassas tracks includes outtakes and unreleased numbers from both recordings. This is the first in a series of retrospective recordings that Stills plans to issue, among them a box set, a live set, and (in association with Experience Hendrix) an album of studio session demos he recorded with Jimi Hendrix, his then guitar teacher (Hendrix appeared on Stills' debut solo effort), as well as a live compilation. This Manassas material is a delightful surprise. Since virtually all of it was recorded and originally mixed for inclusion on one of the two albums by the band, it sounds great. The mastering and remixing processes are nearly flawless. Musically, there is a slew of Stills compositions that must have been tough to leave on the cutting-room floor, including superior Manassas versions of a pair of tracks that ended up on Stephen Stills 2 -- "Word Game" and "Sugar Babe." The track "Like a Fox" includes a smoking backing vocal performance from Bonnie Raitt. There are alternate versions of two songs that ended up on Down the Road: "Lies" (with Joe Walsh on guitar) and "Do You Remember the Americans." The remaining tracks -- including stellar yet fun readings of country, Western swing, and bluegrass classics such as Leon McAuliffe's "Panhandle Rag," a moving demo reading of "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)" by Joe Maphis, and Bill Monroe's "Uncle Pen," as well as the Latin rhumba "Tan Sola y Triste" (written by Stills and Nelson Escola) -- reflect the incredible diversity and musicianship of Manassas. Other stellar numbers include the opening "Witching Hour," Chris Hillman's "Love and Satisfy," and a live version of "High and Dry" that just kills. Hindsight being 20/20, and since most of this music is unreleased, there is a real argument to be made that much of it would have served Down the Road more than what made it onto the final product, even though some was recorded for the Manassas debut. Also, it is worth pointing out that since Stills is a native Floridian and this band came together, rehearsed, and recorded in one of his homes in that state, this is one of the first portraits listeners have of the various musical cultures of Florida making it onto tape as country, blues, swamp pop, and Latin styles all mixed in a rock & roll stew while retaining their original characteristics. This is one of the few cases where a collection from the vaults was completely worthwhile. There is no filler, no half-assed fodder included here. If it is any indication at all, Pieces bodes well for the retrospective material Stills will issue in the future.
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Stephen Stills has often said that Manassass was the best band he played in. Pretty strong stuff coming from the architect of the Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills and Nash, and CSN&Y, but arguably its true. Disllusioned by the inner turmoil of the CSN experience and just turned on to Country music - funny, since he grew up around it in Texas and in Florida, Stills turned to another former Byrd, (and a more disciplined one than Crosby) Chris Hillman, who was practically burned out on the Burrito experience, to form an eclectic band that could cover and smoke on practically all kinds of popular music, Rock, Country, Folk, R&B, Latin and the result was Manassas In its three-year career Manassas recorded two albums, the first, a self-titled four-lp monster that was received with critical acclaim and which the band was able to present entirely live in concert. By the time that they recorded their second album "Down the Road" several of the members of the band had been too abusive with their drug use, and one could hear the sad results in "Down the Road" despite some highlights from both Stills and Hillman. Lured by record company execs to reform CSN, Stills lost interest, Hillman joined J.D. Souther and Richie Furay (ironically another Buffalo Springfield alumni), and Manassas folded. Flash forward 36 years after the demise of Manassas. Stephen Stills has generously opened his vaults and released "Pieces" which by any stretch of the imagination should have been the album released after that four-record set. Not only does it contain re-worked (at the time) versions of Hillman's "Lies" featuring Joe Walsh on smoking slide, but also a couple of Byron Berline fiddle-flavored Stills meets Burritos outtakes, and a subdued but very effective Hillman-sung version of the Country Classic and Burritos favorite "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, and Loud, Loud Music". There's also an early version of "Love and Satisfy" a song Hillman later released on the second Souther-Hillman-Furay album. Stills also brings to the table the Manassas version of "Sugar Babe",steel-flavored, courtesy of Al Perkins which is incredibly better than the original version, and the original version was great. He also shines on the Blues numbers, and on an very intriguing Country-flavored "Fox On The Run" with Bonnie Raitt and Hillman contributing backing vocals accompanied by Perkins on Steel (one wonders if this song was a derivative of Manfred Mann's pop hit in England, "Fox on the Run" three years earlier - and probably brought to Stills attention by Graham Nash). Also not to be missed is another re-worked or demo song that later appeared on "Down the Road" - "Do You Remember the Americans" which is sadly missing the harmony vocals on the "Down the Road" version. After listening to these never-before-released tracks one wishes - and hopes that there are more Manassas tracks in the home vaults of Stephen Stills, and that one day he will released them, along with a Manassas Live album one keeps hearing rumors about. * a historical note is appropriate here: the name Manassas came from Stills's interest in the Civil War and a visit by the band to the Manassas (Bull Run) railroad station in Virginia. The station, which is close to the actual battlefields, was an assembly point for Confederate reinforcements in the First Bull Run battle; later