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Neil Young News
A Prairie Wind Blows Through Nashville
Concert Review by Karen Barry Schwarz
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It can not be said that the rusties fierce devotion to their hero is encouraged by the performer. Mr. Young's style is often to mumble only "how ya doin'" to his audience midway through a concert, followed by "thank you" or, if he is feeling chatty, "thanks, see ya down the road" as he exits the stage. (The tables were turned when his own "how ya doin'" was sent out from the audience to the performer on the first of his two-night stand in Nashville, Mr. Young's mumbled response: "I'm standin'.") Nashville represented Mr. Young's first scheduled live shows since he experienced double vision after performing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York in March, sending him immediately to the hospital. (He was quoted as saying "I saw a lot of doctors real fast.") Resulting tests revealed a brain aneurysm. Before having surgery and treatment, Mr. Young chose to return to Nashville for a week to record "Prairie Wind," perhaps unsure of the surgery's outcome.
Mr. Young's relationship with his fans goes even further than simply ignoring them, and has often crossed into downright hostility. One famously bootlegged concert from early in his career is referred to by fans as the "Shut up or I'll Split" show, where the singer, increasingly irritated by the chatter in the club, says angrily "I am not together enough tonight to put up with any shit, so just shut up or I'll split." The audience falls silent. More recently, in March of 2004 as Neil Young and Crazy Horse performed their "Greendale" show during a three-night stand at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Mr. Young grew increasingly annoyed (and presumably insulted) that two audience members in the front row were not only not paying attention to the show but chatting to each other and then, quite rudely, talking on their cell phones. After stalking back and forth in front of them for a bit and deploying his legendary glare to no effect, he decided to spit at them. He had their attention at last, and they made a hasty exit.
Nonetheless, the man is well loved by his fans, his most ardent always defending his hostile behavior, pointing out that it is always provoked by an unruly and inappropriate audience member. Indeed, on many bootlegged concert tapes you can hear a shout for "Southern man!" or "Ohio!" followed up immediately by the devotees telling the yellers in the oft-used vernacular of their hero to "Shut up, Asshole," themselves a small, protective army scattered throughout the venue, deployed by no one but themselves. (A rustie would never harass the performer by yelling out for a favorite song, especially not during an acoustic set, perhaps fearful that Mr. Young would, in fact, split and they would be out of a show, but more likely out of intense respect for the artist.) It must be said that Mr. Young may have mellowed a bit of late, not reacting to an aggressive fan with a request list at his solo acoustic concert in Berkeley, California last September. As Mr. Young played, a fan approached the stage, and had the incredible gall to place a piece of paper, presumably a request or two, at Mr. Young's feet as he played. Mr. Young consummately ignored him, and those familiar with Mr. Young's habits breathed a sigh of relief. But then, and at this point everyone had to be wondering what this guy was thinking, the fan approached again, pushing the piece of paper directly under Mr. Young's foot as it tapped up and down. Did he think he hadn't seen him the first time? Mr. Young did not look up, but did restart the song, grumbling and mumbling something about forgetting the words, and then with much grace went on without so much as a glance at the paper on the floor. It was still there when he left the stage at the end of the evening.
Neil Young fans all over the world were shocked recently, though, to see a link on Mr. Young's website entitled "Dear Friends," with one click revealing a letter from Mr. Young directly to his fans, thanking them for their love and support through the years and during his recent health scare. A nod to the fans after all these years left some even more concerned about what had happened to their hero's brain during the surgery, but minds were put to rest when, as suddenly as it appeared, the link was gone, leaving fans chuckling as they imagined a grumbling Neil Young thinking better of the whole thing and demanding the link be removed. (Neil Young's website, at neilyoung.com, is called "Neil's Garage," a reference to the fact that the musician is also a fan and collector of vintage automobiles, mostly American cars from the 1950's. Mr. Young was quoted in "Shakey," a biography by Jimmy McDonough, as saying with some scorn "I don't have a website," and then soon thereafter created one.)
Although Mr. Young's letter to his fans included an assurance that he had been promised a full and complete recovery by his doctors, many were eager to see for themselves. Rumor of a Nashville show created a flurry of excitement among his followers, who were crushed to learn that in the end the two night concert was to be "invitation only." Given Mr. Young's relationship with his fans to date, an invitation seemed unlikely. Still, rusties materialized in Nashville, some with a remote connection or two, most on a wing and a prayer, hoping against hope to get in to see the show. From as far flung as Holland, England, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Nantucket, Massachusetts, rusties gathered in Nashville the day before the shows, working together to try to find a way to get in. (Oddly enough, Mr. Young would perhaps be proud to know that he has accidentally created a small society of some of the most generous and kindly people on the planet. Having spent a considerable amount of time with this group, I am still astounded by their generosity and kindness towards one another. It is truly an "all for one and one for all" credo, no one rustie happy with his or her own good fortune in scoring a ticket, worried to the last that one of their own will be left behind.)
Jonathan Demme missed out on what might have been the most comic and strangely touching scene for his "Prairie Wind" concert film when he failed to catch wind of the rusties at work on the ground in Nashville. Most having gotten into see Thursday's show one way or another, Friday morning dawned on many of the devotees with a severe case of "ticket nerve-osa" as one rustie put it, no ticket in hand for a show they knew they had to see (again.) Having received a tip from a local that the classic rock radio station in Nashville would be announcing a location where their station's promotional Hummer would be parked, its sole mission to give away tickets to Friday night's show, five ardent fans, two men and three women, all over the age of forty, and essentially strangers to one another, squeezed into a tiny rental car listening to the radio with the engine running, map in hand and ready to roll.
As Proud Mary, the station's d.j., teased the listening audience with repeated promises that the location of the Hummer would be revealed at noon, they waited in anticipatory silence. At one point, a woman in the back remembered that she had saved the wishbone given to her at Jack's Bar-B-Q the day before for just this circumstance, and pulled it out of her purse. With the two women on either side each holding one side of the wishbone, and her holding the center, on the count of three they all made the same wish (that they would get into the show that night) and pulled. They took it as a good sign that the wishbone broke straight down the middle, evening their odds, and laughing at their own silliness and superstition, tossed the broken chicken bones out the window. (Chicken bones were oddly appropriate, given that Mr. Young raised chickens as a small child, and indeed told the Nashville audience "I used to be a chicken farmer, ya know." During his recent "Greendale" tour, Mr. Young told Jay Leno on The Tonight Show after a long, convoluted metaphorical story involving chickens that "no story is complete without a chicken in it.")
At noon, when Proud Mary announced the Hummer's location as the Wendy's in Smyrna, they were off, running red lights and making illegal u-turns as needed. Miraculously, given that no one in the car was familiar with the area, they found the location in the nick of time, screeching the car to a halt at the door of the Wendy's with four of the five tumbling out to get their tickets. The driver, a straight arrow who was reluctant to jump out of the car at the door, showed incredible self-restraint as he proceeded to try to park the car in a legitimate parking spot, while the other three car doors swung back and forth, the women's purses spilling out of the car, the doors having been left open and all manner of paraphernalia having been trampled in the stampede to get out of the back.
Not everyone is a fan. Indeed, some of the "invited guests" in Nashville were seen leaving the theatre before the second set on Thursday night, the set which was to include some of Mr. Young's older and most beloved songs, some kindly handing their ticket stubs, good for re-entry, to patiently waiting and still hopeful fans hanging around outside. (Including "I Am A Child," "Heart of Gold," "Old Man," "Needle and the Damage Done," "Comes A Time," "Four Strong Winds," "Harvest Moon," "One of These Days" and on banjo, replete with howling and sniffing, "Old King," the second set was classic Neil Young, stunning in his ability to sound exactly as he had almost forty years ago.) But to some, sounding exactly as he had thirty or forty years ago is not a selling point. Mention the name "Neil Young" at your next cocktail party and you are bound to stir it up. The very mention of the man's name inspires some unusual behaviors, inspiring normally conservative men to sing to you in a shrill, tortured, mocking falsetto words like "Old man, look at my life, I'm a lot like you were," or "Oh to live on, sugar mountain."
Mr. Young's voice has been both a blessing and a curse for him throughout his career. As he embarked on his journey to be a musician, he was told by a recording executive that he could indeed write songs and even play the guitar, "but kid, you'll never be a singer." Undeterred, Mr. Young bravely marched on, for a while just writing songs and playing lead guitar for his bands, keeping his unusual voice in his back pocket, but ultimately realizing that in order for his songs to be sung properly he was going to have to sing them himself. In a gesture that must have required some courage, Mr. Young decided to step up to microphone himself at last in the Buffalo Springfield days, only to have his own band mate (Stephen Stills) beat him to the microphone to apologize in advance to the audience for his band mate's voice. (It must have been devastating. Still smarting after all these years from being singularly excluded from my own fifth grade chorus by an old school and insensitive music teacher, I can't even recount that story without my throat catching.)
But sing he did, and never stopped. (On his last album, "Greendale," described by Mr. Young as a musical novel, one of Mr. Young's imaginary character sings "This guy just keeps on singin', can't anybody shut him up?" indicating that Mr. Young perhaps has developed a sense of humor about his voice and also his incredibly long career. Mr. Young has in fact made reference to his unusual voice in several of his songs, once singing "I'll never be an opera star, I was born to rock" and in a musical tale about his friend and roadie Bruce Berry imitating him, "he sang a song in a shakey, shakey voice.") In Nashville Mr. Young poked fun at his voice himself when he good-naturedly recounted a story that his old friend, the now deceased Nicolette Larson, once shared with him. Evidently, Ms. Larson told Mr. Young that when she used to ride around with her friends in her younger days, singing his songs, they found that they sounded just like Mr. Young as they went over the washboard roads in an old truck. (Mr. Young smiled a wry smile as he finished telling the story and raising his eyes and a hand to the ceiling, said "This one's for you, Nicolette" with obvious affection, launching into a beautiful rendition of Ian and Sylvia's "Four Strong Winds," a song he recorded with Ms. Larson.)
Like it or not, Mr. Young's voice is one of the key ingredients of his sound, often cited by his many fans as the thing they like best about his music. Lending drama and intrigue to his songs, Mr. Young's voice covers a wide range. Though often (and, sigh, predictably) mocked as having a predictably high, shaky timbre, his voice in actuality is predictable only in its unpredictability. At any given singing moment it is as likely to be as deep and low as the trademark thump, thump of his bass notes, the low "e" string of his old guitar tuned down to "d" or lower and rattling away, as it is to be so impossibly high that you almost have to scrunch up your face and squeeze your eyes shut just to hear it, let alone sing along. From the heartbreakingly lonely sound of his vocals during lines like "lonesome whistle on a railroad track," from "Mellow My Mind," or the "silhouettes on a window-oh-oh-oh" of "Razor Love," to songs like "Heavy Love" which make you wonder if the man is having a nervous breakdown before his voice breaks down altogether into an anguished, raspy scream, Neil Young's voice is an enigma. It is as credible in its lecherous, leering tone during "Farmer John, I'm in love with your daughter" as it is when he sings so very sweetly the "because I'm still in love with you" of Harvest Moon, as he did in Nashville the other night, on this night looking behind him and directly at his wife Pegi as he sang it. You could see her blushing even from the balcony. (Indeed, Mr. Young is not without his charms, even after all this time. When he did a radio interview with NPR's Terri Gross last year, a friend and I sat and listened. When she apologized to him for her voice, explaining that she was rather hoarse with a cold, he answered in a gruff, kind of "aw shucks" kind of fashion, saying "Your voice sounds pretty good to me, Terri," or something along those lines. There was a pregnant pause, and my friend turned to me and said, "My god, you can hear her blushing right through the radio!") Mr. Young's unique voice can be as full of love as it is of hate, as full of wonder as of disgust, as full of fear, doubt and angst as of confidence, the voice of an innocent child as often as it is the voice of the world weary, wisecracking, jaded rock star. So gentle it could probably tame the most persistent demons of even his harshest critics, yet in the next moment so full of rage it can be frightening to be in the front row. Sometimes all in the same song. It is a powerful instrument of his storytelling.
But judging from the applause, including a standing ovation on both evenings, for the most part Mr. Young and his voice were welcome in Nashville, and did not disappoint with a show that exceeded the three hour mark. General consensus seemed to indicate that Mr. Young was more "on" on Friday night, especially in his performance of the new material, perhaps more comfortable with himself and the large, shifting groups on stage by then. Or perhaps it was just that Thursday represented not only the first live performance of the new material but also Mr. Young's first live performance since his brain aneurysm. Or maybe it was just the moon. On Friday night, it was full. (Mr. Young marks the full moon on his tour schedule on his website, and once booked a favorite studio for the night of the full moon into perpetuity.) In any case, and somewhat mysteriously, there was a marked difference in his performances on the two nights, the first leaving you thinking "nice new songs," and the next blowing your mind. (Indeed, on Friday evening I was surprised to find that not only was I not at all uncomfortable in my hard church pew seat, but during the performance of the title track "Prairie Wind," my left hand had flown to my mouth at some point, and as the song ended there I sat, eyes wide, hand cupped over mouth as if saying "Oh. My. God.") One person in Mr. Young's camp put it nicely, I thought, when he ruminated that the difference was simply that Mr. Young had really "leaned into" the songs on Friday night.
In any case, since the Nashville performances were not just the "world premiere" of Young's "Prairie Wind" songs as they were billed on the collectible Hatch posters posted outside the Ryman and taped to telephone poles along Broadway in downtown Nashville, quickly snagged by fans even in broad daylight, but also the subject of Mr. Demme's forthcoming concert film, this was a concert of a different rhythm not only for the audience but also for Mr. Young. The Ryman Auditorium was filled with movie types including of course, Mr. Demme who was directing the goings on; indeed the entire orchestra level seemed to be taken up with filming equipment and personnel. Since the shows were being filmed, there was a bit of a delay between songs as things and people on stage were added, removed or rearranged, a time during which Mr. Young told the audience "now we're in limbo," looking none too pleased about it all himself as he paced the stage, looking antsy. (This kind of performance was not typical of a Neil Young concert where he flows from one song to the next without, sometimes quite literally, missing a beat, like his famous performances of his Harvest material in 1971, at places like The Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, England, when he would play "A Man Needs a Maid" on the piano, but then before the audience could quite figure out what was happening it was "Heart of Gold," and then by the time everyone was caught up it was back to "A Man Needs a Maid" for its haunting last notes and words, "when will I see you again?"). Indeed, Mr. Young's concerts often leave younger concert-goers wondering where he gets his energy. He almost always starts on time, jumps from one song right into the next, and never takes a break. Even when the concert is over, and his plan is to come out for a blistering encore set of five, six, seven more physically demanding electric songs, his break is so brief it hardly allows for him (or his audience members) to even catch his breath.
By Friday night's performance, the delays were shorter, and things ran more smoothly between songs. Even Mr. Young, who still found it necessary to explain to his audience what was going on, albeit barely audibly ("mumble mumble limbo"), looked more relaxed. But not completely. Part of the charm of Neil Young, and part of his mystery, is that he somehow manages to look the part of the music icon and elder statesman that he is, but yet, one is compelled to do a double take is that him? During "limbo" on Friday night, Mr. Young mostly looked every bit the elder statesman, the man in charge, as he wandered from musician to musician in his Nashville costume, sipping Starbucks coffee (gone are the tequila-fuelled days of his "Tonight's the Night" tour, now it's Starbucks), looking much less antsy than the previous night. But then, there were moments when you almost involuntarily did a double take, and if you were paying close attention it was quite impossible to suppress a smile. When, and God bless the man that he has still held onto this after all these years, the artist on stage before you was just a 19 year old boy, shuffling around looking like he would rather be anywhere else, circling his guitar looking as if at any moment he was about to say to us all "shut up or I'll split," and just start playing.
In fact Mr. Young's inner child has always seemed to be alive and well. For his Rust Never Sleeps tour and resulting concert film circa 1979, Mr. Young began the show by appearing to be a small child curled up on an enormous amplifier, surrounded by ridiculously oversized tools of the trade. (One in particular is hilarious to longtime fans, that of the giant harmonica and giant water glass, each more than six feet tall. Mr. Young usually has a glass of water next to him on stage, and quite predictably dips each of his many harmonicas into it, slapping the harmonica on his blue-jeaned leg a couple of times before he places it into its rack around his neck, a rack he often refers to as his "Dylan kit.") After an acoustic set of songs like "Sugar Mountain," Mr. Young then curls up on the floor, getting underneath the covers, dreaming of becoming a rock star. He even says things like "When I get big I'm gonna get an electric guitar!" The second set then is a blaze of electric guitar in all its raging glory, Mr. Young's rock star dream realized.
Indeed, Mr. Young's career's body of work seems to reveal a complex inner conflict of world weary rock star meets innocent child, with one song always seeming to belie one persona or another. "I Am A Child," a song of innocence taken from Young's earliest catalogue, and the song which opened his second set of "oldies" in Nashville, sung so sweetly it could be a child singing it, belies the scornful rage that lies within the singer, seen in songs like "Rockin' in the Free World," ("we got a thousand points of light for the homeless man, a kinder, gentler machine gun hand,") just as the hopeful chorus of songs like "Heart of Gold" ("I wanna live, I wanna give, I'd cross the ocean for a heart of gold,") belie a world weary heavy heart, made not of gold but of lead, revealed in songs like "Needle and the Damage Done" or "Cocaine Eyes," or "Tired Eyes," songs about the danger of drugs, from the mouth of one who has seen it all.
In Nashville, Mr. Young managed to be both innocent child and kindly elder statesman as he marveled at the substantial history of the Ryman Auditorium, pointing out the stained glass windows behind the audience in the balcony (we all turned in our creaky old church pew seats to look behind us as he pointed, even though we knew exactly what was there), recalling how on one recent afternoon as he stood in there alone he had taken pleasurable note of the sunlight coming in from those very windows, and how with the sizable demolition and construction going on next store and its resulting, tall parking garage, that sunlight would no longer stream through those windows. He paused. And then, almost as an afterthought, suggested that on the next sunny day we all ought to grab some sunlight, put it in our pockets, and bring it into the Ryman with us when we return.
Mr. Young was in full storytelling mode in Nashville, the concert film when it is released early next year sure to delight his many fans since it marked a return to his earlier and much loved style of chatting during concerts instead of his more recent habit of mumbling only an occasional "how ya doin'." He seemed eager, in fact, to be engaging, and to not leave anyone behind, with such a large group of beloved friends and musicians on stage with him, taking the time to tell the audience long, involved stories between songs, and even trying to recognize and thank not only all the musicians involved but also each crew member at the end of the show on Friday night, leaning into wife Pegi to hear who he had maybe forgotten. He looked truly horrified that in the end he had left out Eric Johnson, a good friend and important member of his inner circle, saying "Oh! How could I forget the devil himself?" (Mr. Johnson played the devil in the live stage and film version of Mr. Young's "Greendale.")
Even the old Ryman Auditorium was not left out of Mr. Young's meanderings, with the artist often stopping to look around and comment on the lovely acoustics and storied history of the place. At one point he said that he thought it kind of sounded like being on the inside of an old guitar. At the end of Friday night's show, the large group of performers gathered in one line at the edge of the stage, looking up at the old theatre (and it was quite a large group, Mr. Young fully aware of the ripe-for-satire picture they must have presented quipping "Is there a guitar player in the house?"). But as the group took their moment and waved to the audience and the curtain began to close, in a spontaneous gesture Mr. Young suddenly hurried forward with one large stride and, parting the rapidly closing old curtain with his two hands, looked up at the folks in the balcony, and at the stained glass windows behind them, and with slightly parted hands reaching out towards the former home of the Grand Ol' Opry, preacher-like, he said simply, "Bless this house," and then stepped back. The curtain fell closed, and he was gone.
As the old church pews creaked and moaned with the slow, steady crush and murmur of the audience moving out, just like at the end of any other Neil Young show, I thought I heard the Ryman answer.
"You just did, Mr. Young. You just did."
Neil Fans in Hot Pursuit of the Ticket of the Year
photos by More photos from Nashville
Go to Back to Part #1
Also, see commentary and analysis on Nashville Ryman Concerts and a "Prairie Wind" CD review - "A Gentle Breeze Deceptively Lulls The Howls Of Loss".
More on Neil Young's new "Prairie Wind" CD and reviews of the Ryman concerts.
Concert Reviews of Neil Young
Thrasher's Wheat - A Neil Young Archives