Neil Young's concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on August 18-19, 2005 is more than a showcase for the Prairie Moon movie. For the fans, it's a recap of Young's long and varied musical career, a chance to thank his fans and wife Pegi (singing "I'm still in love with you" and looking directly at her) and, at the same time, deepening the mystery that is Neil Young. Report by Karen Barry Schwarz.

 

Neil Young. The name conjures up a jumble of images, a cornucopia of music genres and sounds. Most will probably call up the image of the lone troubadour, the flannel-shirted, long haired hippy Neil Young, with torn jeans and an old guitar, singing old, familiar tunes like "Heart of Gold," "Old Man," and "Needle and The Damage Done," songs from his bestselling album "Harvest." Many will picture a rock and roll pioneer, a masterful lead guitarist in bands like the much loved but short lived Buffalo Springfield, and the still-chugging-along supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Others still will see no one but the Neil Young of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the rocker who stomps around on stage with a 1953 black Gibson Les Paul, stalking his band mates and his amplifiers, as if daring the music gods to bring it on as he beseeches us to "keep on rockin' in the free world," or reminds us that "hey, hey, my, my, rock and roll will never die," a line he can certainly deliver with some credibility as he approaches the age of 60.

But there is also Neil Young the country singer, of Neil Young and the International Harvesters, and Neil Young the fifties rocker, of Neil Young and The Shocking Pinks, and Neil Young the blues man, of Neil Young and The Blue Notes, and Neil Young the experimenter, of Neil Young and The Trans Band, and Neil Young the filmmaker, of Journey through the Past, Human Highway and Greendale fame or notoriety, depending on your point of view, and even Neil Young the family man, married to the same woman for some 27 years now, so attached to his family that he hauls them the world over aboard his elaborate tour bus, unwilling to venture very far these days without wife, kids and even the family dog close behind.

And in Nashville the other night, as he stood on stage at the Ryman Auditorium looking like Hank Williams reincarnate in a white shirt, gray suit and cowboy boots, indeed playing Hank's old Martin guitar, Neil Young managed to be all of these people and more, putting on a show that transcended musical genres, place and time. Fulfilling a two-night stand which are the only scheduled live performances of his forthcoming album "Prairie Wind" and which are to be the subject of a concert film directed by Jonathan Demme, the songwriter only deepened the mystery that is Neil Young.

And this perhaps in spite of himself. The show at the Ryman Auditorium, a former church and former seat of The Grand Ol' Opry, was steeped in traditional, even old-fashioned Nashville in manner and feel, with sparse sets consisting only of the building's own bare, stained glass windowed wall and two simple backdrops, one a lonesome prairie with a farm and a moving train off in the distance, the other a larger than life, child-like drawing of hearth and home, the players on stage dressed in what could only be called Nashville costumes, the women in cowboy boots and shirt-waist, full-skirted dresses and the men in varying hats and suits and boots much like Young himself. (In other words, no ripped jeans or flannel shirts in sight.)

It was clear that Mr. Young wanted to fully project the image of Neil Young, Grand Ol' Opry singer, good ol' Nashville boy, as he is wont to do. (Young is known for being an all or nothing kind of performer, when he decided to go country and formed The International Harvesters band in 1985, he declared that he would play only this kind of music and state fair venues forevermore.) Indeed, the Nashville Neil Young is not disingenuous.

Young's bestselling "Harvest" was recorded in Nashville in 1972, and Mr. Young is clearly at this point in his long career every bit the performing and songwriting legend as those one might more typically associate with the Grand Ol' Opry, like Hank Williams or Johnny Cash. But, and fortunately for the audience, Mr. Young on these two nights could not avoid bringing his other many selves into the room.



"Prairie Wind" was destined for a Nashville debut, having been recorded in Nashville earlier this year and resonating with traditional Nashville sound, with masterful pedal steel guitar provided by Mr. Young's longtime friend and frequent collaborator Ben Keith (introduced by Mr. Young as "my old friend"), and stunning backing vocals by the Nashville queen herself, Ms. Emmylou Harris. (Graciously introduced by Mr. Young as "someone who needs no introduction here," and later "my friend" on the first night of Mr. Young's two night stand, Mr. Young did look mildly surprised when on the second night, after an exciting opening performance of his new song "The Painter," the shout that came from the crowd was not "Neil!" as so often happens, but "Emmylou! We love you!").

Though steel guitar and backing vocals are commonplace in not only country but also pop and rock songs today, if it weren't for Nashville it might not be so. In the late 1920s, Sam McGee, immortalized by Robert Service in his poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee" ("now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blows and blows,"), was the first person to play electric steel guitar on a broadcast of the Grand Ol' Opry, causing other performers to try all kinds of tunings to try to achieve his new sound before they learnt what he was really up to.

Mr. Young takes full advantage of the Nashville sound with "Prairie Wind," using to good effect not only the considerable talents of Ms. Harris and Mr. Keith but also of a cadre of others to help him to do so, with the various stagings of its live performances the other night often taking the shape of an illustrated version of a "Who's Who in Nashville" history book.

Included in the small army of talented musicians and singers on stage were also: Spooner Oldham on keyboard, himself a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Mr. Young's, Rick Rosas on electric bass, Karl Himmel and Chad Cromwell on drums, Wayne Jackson and the Memphis Horns, The Nashville String Machine, and, on backing vocals, not only the truly jaw-dropping sound of Ms. Harris but also the entire chorus of The Fisk University Jubilee Singers (who danced onto stage with some enthusiasm), and Diana Dewitt and Pegi Young (Mr. Young's wife of many years). Anthony Crawford, Gary Pigg, Grant Boatwright, Tom McGinley, Jimmy Sharp and Clinton Gregory helped Mr. Young to fully realize his vision, and were on hand to round out the Nashville sound for various songs.

Sometimes standing and sometimes sitting with his old guitars, and with his characteristic limbs-akimbo style going full steam ahead, with feet tapping and legs moving about in such a way that it makes you wonder what exactly it is that he is hearing in his head, Mr. Young played only acoustic guitar as well as harmonica, piano and banjo. Mr. Young's old familiar sound consisting of simple melodies, driving rhythms and haunting vocals - a sound that is uniquely his and seems to emerge from every one of his records, no matter his genre or mood - was well suited to the new songs, which all had a wistful, dream-like quality to them.

Sometimes lyrically metaphorical like so many of Mr. Young's songs, and sometimes more plain spoken, the songs were not only classic Nashville but classic Neil Young. The opening song had an especially dream-like feel lyrically and musically, but in its lyric pointed out the danger of being too dreamy: "If you follow every dream you... Might. Get. Lost." A later song with Mr. Young on piano and the beautiful orchestral sound of the entire Nashville String Machine also spoke about dreams, a common theme for Mr. Young: "it's a dream and it's fading away, just a memory, with no way to stay."

Mr. Young revealed an emotional side with several songs, in one seeming to be almost overwhelmed, even surprised, by the love so openly shown to him during a recent health scare. Explaining that the inspiration for the song came from a friend's voice-mail message inquiring about Mr. Young's health and wanting to tell him how he felt about him, joking that he wouldn't say who it was because he did not share writing credit with anyone, Mr. Young used his almost impossible-to-duplicate high voice for the chorus, which had in this case the unexpected effect of breaking your heart: "I send my best to you, I never thank you enough. I feel like I'm fallin' off the face of the earth."

And, in what was clearly a tribute to his recently deceased father, the Canadian sportswriter Scott Young, he told us how impressed he was that when he was a young boy, seven or eight, maybe, he thought, his father presented him with an Arthur Godfrey plastic ukulele. But not only that, his father picked out a tune on it, surprising the heck out of Young and leaving an indelible mark. Singing "bury me out on the prairie where the buffalo roam, you won't have to shed a tear for me 'cause then I won't be far from home," Mr. Young was speaking perhaps not only of his father but to his own family, his own mortality on his mind.

Neil Young's family is never far from him, and they often show up in his songs. On "Prairie Wind," there is also a song for his daughter, who he explained is off to college this year, leaving him an "empty nester," saying "I never really knew what that meant, ya know, 'til I felt it."

Mr. Young told us how he "used to write all these love songs for these young girls, ya know, especially in my Buffalo Springfield days, but this is a different kind of love song," and then launched into the plain spoken song for his youngest child and only daughter: "yes I miss you but I never want to hold you down, you might say I'm here for you." (Just as he was about to start the song he stopped himself, and as an afterthought leaned into the microphone to tell the audience "I think I still have a couple of those other love songs in me though," thrilling fans of his early, romantic love songs.)

The new songs included two rockers, one with the chorus "Tryin' to remember what daddy said, prairie wind blowin' through my head," the lyric reminiscent of his 1974 "See the Sky About to Rain" from "On the Beach" where he cried plaintively "whistle blowin' through my brain," a song Mr. Young played on acoustic guitar and harmonica that is hard not to move to.

Indeed, as he played it on Friday night I thought Mr. Young might fall right off his chair he was rocking back and forth so aggressively. The other brought to mind Mr. Young's Shocking Pinks days, as Mr. Young had fun with a song he wrote about Elvis Presley, standing and - almost - wiggling, singing "the last time I saw Elvis," and "He was the king!", even pulling off a couple of "thank you, thank you very much" Elvis impersonations at the end.

 

And although the "Prairie Wind" songs show a more mature, more nostalgic than brooding Neil Young, grappling with issues of mortality, and loss of both parent and child (no longer is it the case that "all my songs are so long, and my words so sad," as he once sang in the still unreleased song "Love Art Blues," circa 1974) several of the new songs show Young's classic, almost child-like sensibilities still intact.

"This Old Guitar," he said, was actually written, well, by the guitar. And in someone else's hands the song might have become just straight ahead country, or even hokey, but Young puts his own indelible mark on it when he not only sings "when I get drunk and seeing double it jumps behind the wheel and steers," but also "it's been a messenger in times of trouble, in times of hope and fear." Sung with Emmylou Harris, the chorus of "this old guitar" is so ethereal and haunting even the least imaginative listener might start to wonder if the guitar did not indeed write the song.

The closing song was "When God Made Me," the title and lyric so plain spoken it might be the text of a child's Sunday school essay, Mr. Young admitted was an "unusual song for me," looking down at his hands as he sat at the piano, pointing out that the song was particularly appropriate in the Ryman, itself a former church, then going on to softly say "we all want to be close to God," quickly moving his fingers onto the piano keys as if maybe he thought he had said too much.

Most of the "Prairie Wind" songs are straightforward in their meaning, which has not always been the case with Mr. Young. Indeed sometimes the meaning of a Neil Young song eludes even his most poetic or analytical listeners and even, if one is to believe the voice of the narrator, Young himself (he once sang, in "Ambulance Blues," "it's hard to tell the meaning of this song.")

But somehow, the feeling is there, even if the literal meaning is not immediately (or ever) apparent. Herman Melville once wrote, in an 1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne regarding Moby Dick, "You did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book - and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul. Once you … heard the rushing of the demon... and recognized the sound; for you have heard it in your own solitudes." Even if we don't always know what Neil Young is talking about, we recognize the sound, perhaps having heard it in our own solitudes.

The "Prairie Wind" songs were performed in the order in which they will appear on the recording, and indeed in the order in which they were written and recorded. A small detail, but of interest perhaps to those who are interested in how Mr. Young's mind works. Like the "rusties," an organized, tightly knit group of the most devoted Neil Young fans, a fiercely loyal, obsessive and highly knowledgeable group that takes its name from Mr. Young's popular "Rust Never Sleeps" album.

Created in 1992 with the advent of the Internet, the group now consists of more than four thousand members from all over the world, ranging in age from 13 to 62, the bulk of them in their forties. Many follow Mr. Young around the world, hearing the same concert again and again, all hoping to hear the rare, hardly-ever-played song from a favorite album. And perhaps because most are firm believers in the adage that "live music is better," a sentiment often touted by Mr. Young and immortalized in his 1980 song "Union Man" from the album "Hawks and Doves." (In the song, Mr. Young takes on the persona of union president at a union meeting, and the edict that gets passed is that "live music is better bumper stickers should be issued!" The rusties did, in fact, issue them, all proudly sporting them on car bumpers and old guitar cases today.)

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.

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