Neil Young Concert Review - Greendale Tour, Columbia, MD - 6/25/03
The Sublime Genius of Neil
Photo by Doug Stacey
More Greendale Photos and News
I guess the first thing one does after leaving a Neil Young concert is start doing the comparisons. Was it better than the last show or tour? How did this setlist compare with that one? Was Neil into it or going through the motions?
I went in with mixed expectations having heard some of the Europe solo acoustic shows and reading early reviews of the electric set, with the "cheesy props and flimsy sets" staging, and fans' disappointment with the new material. But Expecting2Fly had set me straight that this was the "best Neil in decades."
No doubt about it, the Greendale tour ranks up there in a career with a lot of high watermarks. Does it compare with the '78 Rust Never Sleeps tour? While the encore clips from the film might draw the comparison, I don't think that Greendale will achieve the RNS level of legendary status. But still, the genius of Greendale is sublime. It is a sprawling epic of a tale whose audaciousness is only exceeded by its deceptively simple lyrics and staging.
The Washington Times had this as the lead for the review: "That was the weirdest thing I've ever seen," said one of the thousands of dazed and confused Neil Young fans who poured out of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., Wednesday night. "Weird. But cool."
I caught up with a friend afterwards who is a Neil fan but regards Dylan as the leading legend in terms of currently performing artists. We've had that Neil vs Bob debate a few times. His assessment was that Greendale brings Neil one step closer to Bob in his book. Not exactly faint praise.
On the whole, the Merriweather crowd seemed to appreciate the Greendale material. There was generous applause after all the new songs and scattered groups of folks would even stand and applaud to demonstrate their appreciation for the new songs. But there was definitely heckling and angry comments along the lines of "Greendale sucks" and "Play some rock and roll". A guy behind me yelled, "Snap out of it Neil!". Fortunately, this tended to occur between songs.
On the whole, the Maryland crowd was much better than the disaster in Atlanta. From Creative Loafing:
One definition of scalawag is someone who shits where he eats; last week at Chastain, Neil Young took a massive dump.
Very harsh words, no doubt. But this is the kind of angst which Greendale has so inflamed. Last I checked, artist's that challenge their audiences are well regarded by history. Those which placate the masses are tossed on the scrapheap of anonymity. So when does the artist have an obligation to appease one's fan base? Does the casual fan have certain inaleinable rights over the hardcore fans?
On Metafilter's Greendale discussion:
More comments on artists obligations to fans on Metafilter:
I went to a Bare Naked Ladies concert where we stood in the rain and all they played were songs from the 'new album not yet released'. Then they played all their classics in a 3 minute jam feast. Bah!
The reaction of diehard Neil fans and the more casual fan has been fascinating. Shawn boldly posted on RUST regarding the Toronto show:
I was bored out of my tree. When Neil finally launched into the encores it was so
blatantly obvious to me how inferior in quality the Greendale songs are in comparison.
Gone are Neil's beautiful poetic lyrics and haunting melodies. The new songs seem crafted
by the "I'm looking for a word that rhymes with" approach. They are simple,
lacking depth or intelligence. They are cheesy and extremely monotonous. I
found myself counting down how many Greendale songs were left. "Grandpa,
Grandma, Jed, Earl.....on and on like an episode of The Twighlight Zone
where Neil Young visits "Green Acres or "The Beverly Hillbillies" and can't
escape. I really couldn't believe what I was watching. Its the first time
I've been to a Neil young concert that instead of being lost in the music my
mind was wandering and I was checking my watch. I was glad when it was over.
Even more courageously, Kate's post from Human Highway's Bad News Beat:
I think Neil is in treacherous waters as an artist. He's swimming in sycophants and I think he's buying their babble. I found his post-Paris comments about how it would be selfish of him not to share these new songs precious, arrogant and condescending. I'm starting to think that Neil's starting to think that whatever he commits to paper is special. I'll bet Briggs is rolling in his grave over Greendale. It looks like no one has stepped in to tell Neil when he's sinking in s%*t. Close to the source? I don't think so. I think the real story was Captain John Green's tale, the first song in the series, the one with the decent lyrics. But Neil chose not to pursue it, except perhaps in Earl's lament. He's running from his demons and he's contented himself with mediocrity instead. Not a good idea for an artist. All in my opinion, of course.
The people who feel compelled to defend Neil so virulently at every step, who swear he can't be to blame for high ticket prices, who try to beat dissent into submission, who are more concerned that Neil enjoy himself on this tour than that they do are doing him a disservice. When you label mediocrity as brilliant, you simply encourage more mediocrity.
While Kate certainly raises some legitimate points about artistic integrity vs. fan satisfaction and concert values, I'm not sure the happy medium is anyone's best interests. For some reason this reminds me of Andy Kaufman's penchant for challenging and infuriating audiences, only to be recognized for "performance artist" brilliance in death. Or Lenny Bruce maybe for the sheer blatant outrage that left audiences reeling. A few years back Neil himself confessed that it's all one song anyway.
I didn't find Greendale to be anywhere near as audience hostile in the way that folks felt seeing Neil on tour in 73's Time Fades Away or the Tonight's the Night Tour after the Harvest success . And certainly nothing whatsoever to what Bob Dylan endured in '66 after going electric and hearing cries of "Judas!". On Dylan's legendary Royal Albert Hall performance:
"The concert has since taken on historical overtones similar to that of the 1913 Paris premiere of Igor Stravinskyís Rite of Spring. Like Stravinskyís, Dylanís avant-garde experiment was met with outright hostility on the part of the audience. But in the long run, both innovators were hailed as singular geniuses, dragging their respective audiences and genres kicking and screaming into theretofore new and unexplored territories which would prove artistically rich and fertile for themselves and others. Each in their own way were signposts that spoke eloquently of and to their times."
I really did enjoy myself watching the Greendale spectacle, listening to the muttering around me and just admiring Neil for the audacity of it all. And it really is audacious. A giant middle finger to a lot of sacred cows. And it had all the potential of being a spectacular, self indulgent failure. As Bob the Writer put it to succintly on RUST:
"But I am more than happy to drive nails through the hands and feet of the
drunken punkers who hate Greendale merely because it is not Southern Man."
So Greendale. It looks like a nice little town and sure seems to have some interesting folks living there. Life looks pretty simple with ordinary homes and everyday routines. But under the surface there's more to the picture than meets the eye.
There are innumerable themes in Greendale encompassing all of Neil's body of work. Nothing really new, but it all ties together rather loosely. Freedom, love and innocence lost, searching for meaning, good vs evil. It's all there.
Neil takes on some serious issues such as the Patriot Act where our government not only will watch us to protect us, but will ask all of us to watch our neighbors also. With images of Ashcroft and Ridge flashed on the screen along with mock CNN screens with High Terror Alert, Young is anything but subtle. The politics of fear is flourishing.
One of the wondrous things about Neil's music has been the multiple interpretations his sometime simple but oblique lyrics take on. Greendale does seem straightforward with its anti-corporate themes and pro-environmental stance. These themes are usually considered to be a liberal viewpoint. But Young mixes in a fair amount of conservative themes such as the family values. Greendale holds the family unit in high regard and a core value. Neil seems to practice this by taking his family on the road and onto the Greendale stage.
I guess besides the grand finale of Be The Rain, I was most moved by Grandpa's Interview. The staging on this was quite effective with it's camera toting media horde and background projection of helicopter video of the Double EE surrounded by TV satellite trucks. "The only good thing on TV is Leave it to Beaver." A few comments about Andy Griffith's Mayberry. Again, this seems to reinforce the family values themes and the corrupting influence of the mass media.
So here's the setlist. After Greendale, came the classic hits set. It certainly felt anti-climatic to me. Yes, it was fun to rock out with everyone and the crowd certainly seemed delighted with the encores. Prisoners of RnR was gloriously ragged as Neil and the Horse chanted "That's why we don't want to be good", probably with more than a little tongue in cheek than usual. It's this portion of the show that seems to make the Greendale excercise the price one has to pay. Typical coverage similar to this from Chicago Tribune:
The audience then got its reward in the form of a three-song encore featuring classic guitar battles between Young and Frank Sampedro on "Powderfinger," "Down by the River" and "Rockin' in the Free World" before finishing with "Roll Another Number." Everyone seemed to go away happy - Young most of all, pleased by the crowd response and as ever rocking to a rhythm only he can sense, while always playing on the beat, his fuzzy guitar tone filling the arena.
At the concluding curtain call, Neil, the Horse and crew and cast flashed peace signs. Echoing earlier comments after Carmichael where Neil says:
" a lot of folks think things are simple. Hippies are good and cops are bad. There's a big gray area there. But I don't know much about that".It would seem in today's world that the conventional wisdom is that cops are good and hippies are bad. I really feel this captures the essence of what Greendale is all about. Neil sees a real paradox going on where sometimes what is good is really bad and vice versa. A lot of the corporate, commercial mass media progress has not been all for the good. At least not for the environment and not for family values.
At the end of the evening as 'Rockin' In The Free World''s feedback segued into "Taps", the crowd loved it and called out for more. Not since Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA has a song been so misunderstood and misappropriated. Not that Neil wouldn't appreciate the irony. We had come such a long way from Greendale in such a short time.
Greendale. It's everyone's hometown.
Greendale: Falling From Above, Double E, Devil's Sidewalk, Leave The Driving, Carmichael, Bandit, Grandpa's Interview, Bringing Down Dinner, Sun Green, Be The Rain
Encore #1: Hey Hey, My My , Powderfinger , Prisoners Of Rock 'n' Roll
Encore #2: Rockin' In The Free World
For more Greendale setlists from 2003 tour, see Sugar Mountain.
Neil Young's Greendale
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