Neil Young has never put on a show like "Greendale," the
self-described "musical novel" he performed at Madison
Square Garden on Thursday night. For about 95 minutes he
and his band, Crazy Horse, played all 10 songs from
"Greendale," which he will release as an album and a DVD in
August. Around them, a cast of dozens acted out the skein
of narratives and lip-synched Mr. Young's vocals and
harmonica, with homey sets (a front porch, a jail) and
It's a small-town story about the Green family in the
fictitious California town of Greendale. Crusty Grandpa
wishes things were more like the good old days. His son,
Earl, is a psychedelic painter with no patrons, and Earl's
daughter, Sun Green, becomes a crusader for the
environment. Cousin Jed is a drug dealer who shoots a cop
named Carmichael. The devil, in a red jacket and red shoes,
lives in the Greendale jail and dances through the other
characters' lives. Various forms of mass media - from
Grandpa's morning newspaper to the television crews that
besiege the family after Jed's crime - are ubiquitous.
The difference between a musical novel and the term no one
mentioned - rock opera - must be that Mr. Young sings all
the roles himself. The songs are sparse and leisurely.
Frank Sampedro of Crazy Horse played quiet keyboard parts,
leaving Mr. Young, Billy Talbot on bass and Ralph Molina on
drums to vamp through the handful of chords in each song.
There are slow folk strums that take on gravity as they go,
blues riffs fringed in distortion, and stately lead-guitar
melodies that sound as if they were hewn from Appalachian
Like many a Neil Young song, "Greendale" isn't exactly
linear. It ambles through incidents, character studies,
philosophy and rabble-rousing. It ponders humanity's
failings and dogged perseverance, and it has moments of
self-deprecation, mentioning a song that's "longer than all
the others combined, and it doesn't mean a thing."
In "Carmichael" and "Grandpa's Interview," Mr. Young
sketches action in succinct and cinematic detail, moving
from character to character. And "Bandit," which Mr. Young
played alone on acoustic guitar, ponders artistic crises
and consolation: "Someday, you'll find everything you're
looking for." For "Be the Rain," the finale, Sun Green
leads a chorus line of environmental protesters, like a
latter-day "Let the Sunshine In" from "Hair."
Most of "Greendale" is more reflective. It's the work of a
57-year-old songwriter who's contemplating the fates of
older generations looking back and younger ones determined
to move on, and it's full of Mr. Young's wayward insights
and moments of grace. But "Greendale" doesn't blast and
stomp the way Crazy Horse can.
"I still remember my old songs," Mr. Young announced early
on. And he led an hourlong encore: "Hey Hey, My My," "Like
a Hurricane," "Sedan Delivery," "Powderfinger," "Rockin' in
the Free World" and a free-form stretch of one-chord
mayhem. His lead guitar became a bulldozer, a banshee, a
giant bell, a wounded mammoth and a flame-thrower, and the
old songs' visionary tales and wistful choruses were
reminders of Mr. Young's primal power.