I had promised the Cultural Olympiad to write something on Hal Willner's Neil Young Project, but am challenged on a few fronts - most grievously by the fact that nearly everything I want to say about the event, as well as much I hadn't thought of, has already been said by Alex Varty in the Georgia Straight. Varty blows me away in seeming to know which of the dozens of artists present were Canadians and which Americans; either he was provided an insider's who's who - which is possible, since he interviewed Hal Willner before the event - or he truly does exist on some plane of journalism far above me, knowing who everyone on stage was (or keeping track of the brief introductions) and being able to observe their performances through the filter of regional awareness not open to me. Clever to make an Olympic-themed US vs. Canada competition out of it, too; it might seem an obvious writerly gimmick for a piece about such a night, but I assure you it never occured to me. However, almost everything I did intend to mention about the three hour production, he covered. Elvis Costello's absolutely stealing the show the first night, rescuing us from what was turning into a lackluster second act and channeling at least some of the energy of Neil Young into his guitar solos, getting everyone on their feet? Check - every detail worth noting is in there, every observation about Costello's performances so near identical to my own that I'd have to bend over backwards to write anything about Costello's performance without seeming a plagiarist. Good think Elvis was added to the bill at the last minute - he saw exactly what was needed and brought it onstage with him. Eric Mingus' "fantastically vivid avant-gospel" version of "For The Turnstiles" being one of the night's high points? Check that, too. (And congratulations, Mr. Varty, on your surely being the first person to put "avant" before "gospel;" fond as I am of inventing new genres by tacking "avant" to them, I will ever be jealous that you got there first with this one. I thought of the Art Ensemble of Chicago's "Old Time Religion" throughout that performance, and I imagine you did too). Emily Haines bringing "a new dimension" to "A Man Needs a Maid," another one of my favourite performances that night? Check, though a lot of that dimension came entirely from the fact that the song - which I've always interpreted as a singularly bitter slice of heterosexual male self-loathing - was being sung by a woman, which Varty doesn't go into. He does mention Broken Social Scene's Jason Collett's "goofy but effective" rainmaking stunt, tho', which I got nothin' to say about anyhow, save that, sentimental sucker that I am, I ate it up, which not everyone did. Almost everything I thought would be worth putting in a review is in Varty's. What need is there for me, then?
I do have a few quibbles, mind you. I didn't mind the rave-up climax of "Fuckin' Up," but found it too difficult to hear, let alone evaluate, James Blood Ulmer's guitar solos during “Scenery," a Neil Young song I didn't know beforehand or much care for, as given; maybe Alex had a better seat? Moreso, apparently contra Varty, I thought the fragile sincerity of the obviously uncomfortable Vashti Bunyan during her numbers (especially "After The Gold Rush") was spellbinding and moving, despite her having difficulties with her voice. I probably would have mentioned, too, that Lou Reed's "talking delivery" utterly suited "Helpless," the only song he actually sang that night - though the epic quality of his interpretation made being helpless seem oddly transcendent and empowering, which somehow suits Lou (note to audiences: "Lou" sounds a little bit too much like "boo" to make it a good thing to moan en masse). I might have noted, too, that the weirdly-named Joan As Police Woman was one of the most reliable performers in the band, onstage through almost every number, and almost always bringing something interesting to the mix. All in all there was a bit too much emphasis on the folky troubador side of Neil, tipping the night towards something altogether too slacker-ish and Harvest-y, lacking much of the passion, ugly charisma, and cohesion that one sees with Crazy Horse -- with several of the songs usually performed by that band going totally untouched (like "Like A Hurricane," "Cortez The Killer," "Keep On Rockin' In The Free World," "Tonight's The Night," and "Hey Hey My My," five very large items to leave off the set list). Finally, surely it must have occurred to someone sometime to give "Southern Man" to James Blood Ulmer - maybe a bit too obvious, too dated, or too controversial, but a lost opportunity for a powerful and memorable performance no less. In all, the night was a little less than I'd hoped for, though quite enjoyable nonetheless.
Otherwise, I got nothin' to say. Did I ever mention that I once goofily rewrote at least part of Simon and Garfunkel's "Richard Cory," so that the chorus was "I wish that I could be Alex Varty?" Really, I did. (I won't stalk you, Alex. It's okay). I still don't think it a fair trade to lose arts funding in exchange for one-off spectaculars, but I have to admit that the Cultural Olympiad folks pulled some astonishing feats with the resources at their disposal, not only with the Hal Willner night, but in getting Young himself out for the closing ceremonies; and I'm definitely grateful that Ornette Coleman, a performer I never imagined I'd get to see, was brought to town last year. Mostly, though, I'm relieved that the Olympics are over and we can get on with the business of life in the city. I'm particularly happy to note that the Slovakians will now vacate the Vancity Theatre...
...who will, fittingly enough, resume regularly scheduled programming with The Neil Young Trunk Show, the second feature film made around the music of Neil Young by Jonathan Demme. Seeing films like this theatrically is about as close as a goodly number of music fans' pocketbooks will allow them to get to a Neil Young concert these days, so they're not to be dismissed lightly; and in fact, there's much about them that surpasses the experience of a live concert, almost making it an optimal experience for a certain stripe of music fan. The sound is loud, but not overwhelming as at a concert, and in a theatre like the Vancity, with an excellent soundsystem and acoustics, you'll have an immensely rewarding listening experience, hearing each note with clarity, with no apelike whooping from the crowd to interfere with your appreciating the passages of sustained feedback at the end of songs; plus, tho' he won't be physically present, Neil won't just be a distant dot on the stage, but a huge figure on the screen in front of you (most of the time during Demme's film the camera is squarely on Neil).
That said, I have to confess that for me, the greatest Neil Young movie imaginable was Year Of The Horse, made a few years ago by Jim Jarmusch, showcasing Neil with Crazy Horse, blown up from footage shot in Super 8, which Demme tips his hat to with an extremely grainy bit at one point during his film. Crazy Horse's recent, ongoing disappearance as Young's supporting band is something I sorely hope is temporary, though hearing Neil talk about them in the past tense in this film doesn't bode well on that count. It's probably unfair to compare ANY band to Crazy Horse - one of the most organic and passionate brotherhoods in the history of rock - but even the most raucous guitar workouts in The Neil Young Trunk Show (including an astonishing 22-minute long electric jam around a song either called "Show Me The Way" or "No Hidden Path," or perhaps uniting two songs of those names) force a fan like me to see Ben Keith - a precise, attentive player and, we gather, a multi-instrumentalist whose versatility Young makes a point of praising onscreen - in contrast with Crazy Horse rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro, a player who packs all the guts that Young does into his playing and can meet him force-for-force. However good Keith is, he might as well be a studio session guy by comparison. Bassist Rick Rosas does a better job of not making us miss Billy Talbot overmuch, and is definitely physically grungy enough to play congruently alongside Neil; and Ralph Molina does just a fine job of being Ralph Molina; but even during the climactic 14-minute "Like A Hurricane" or the rockier numbers like "Spirit Road," you've got to settle in to accepting that Neil is the star of this performance, not his chemistry with his bandmates. (It is interesting to see Young's wife Pegi onstage with him, singing and playing vibes, but she doesn't really stand out as a musician or contribute much to band dynamics; it seems a cosmetic presence, even if her name appears on the theatre marquee where Young is playing).
All this said, there are Neil Young fans out there who don't place an outrageously high premium, as I do, on his work with Crazy Horse. For such fans, as I imagine them, seeing Neil doing solo acoustic renditions of "Harvest" or "Ambulance Blues" (both included in the film) is just as satisfying as seeing "Like A Hurricane," and they may actually like the fact that Young here reinterprets "Cowgirl In The Sand" - the very song Elvis Costello wrought so much blood from on Feb. 18th - for acoustic guitar. The novelty of a few unfamiliar songs that may or may not survive in Young's repertoire likely won't make such all-embracing diehards resentful that they're not getting to hear "Cortez The Killer;" and the sensitive cover of the country classic "Oh Lonesome Me" won't make them feel in the slightest impatient for songs actually written by Young. For such a fan, this film will please like Year Of The Horse does me. And even a Crazy Horse diehard can admit that The Neil Young Trunk Show does a better job than any previous Neil Young concert film of showing us the range of emotion and instrumentation a Neil Young concert can embrace; we see him performing not only on acoustic and electric guitars, but on piano, harmonica, and banjo, giving us both old and new songs, and introspective and extroverted ones. Short of breaking out a Trans-era vocoder or lapsing into rockabilly, pretty much every phase of Young's long career is acknowledged in some way. The film is definitely worth a look, and there's a "special advance loud show" playing TONIGHT...
...for those of you not coming to see Crime (see below). Enjoy!