Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Neil makes Noise

Reporting back finally on the May 3rd trip to Cincinnati to see Neil Young in a solo concert. In this case, solo did not mean laid-back and quiet. Young is touring behind his latest album Le Noise, which is also solo, using only guitars (usually electric) treated with studio effects by producer Daniel Lanois, known for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel. So though Young did dig back into his catalog for some gems ("Cinnamon Girl," "After the Gold Rush," "Cortez the Killer"), almost half of the show was comprised of songs from the new album. Lyrically, the new songs are nothing special--mushy but noisy love songs ("Walk With Me," "Sign of Love") and long confessional (and noisy) songs about his life and career ("Hitchiker," "Love and War"). But musically, they're interesting, or maybe I should say "sonically," as most of the interest comes from the layers of echo and feedback on each track.

In concert, Young achieved most of the atmospheric effects through volume--loud and noisy but not enough to call for earplugs--and feedback, though he opened the show with a fairly quiet set on acoustic guitar ("My, My, Hey, Hey," "Tell Me Why," "Helpless"). What surprised me most was how clear and strong Young's voice is. His vocal trademark is usually closer to whiny and fragile, but here, even at the age of 65, his voice sounded better than ever. Because Young has been know to be a bit of a contrarian in concert, deliberately withholding his big hits and playing lesser-known and unreleased stuff, I was pleasantly surprised to hear these three early songs. He then did an unreleased song, "You Never Call," which seemed to be Young complaining about a friend who had passed on who never calls from Heaven, followed by a batch of songs from Le Noise.

After every song or two, he would put down whatever instrument he was playing (guitar, harmonica) and meander about the stage to choose another instrument (piano, pump organ). It looked very casual and almost improvised, although apparently his set list never varied a bit during this tour. He performed a lovely new song called "Leia," about (I assume) his granddaughter, and did a sublime version of "After the Gold Rush" at the organ, which brought tears to my eyes. Another quiet moment was his piano version of "I Believe in You." The biggest surprise of the night was his protest-song hit from his CSNY days, "Ohio," appropriate not only because he was in Ohio but because the next day, May 4th, would be the 41st anniversary of the Kent State shootings, the subject of the song.

But the hardcore fans were probably happiest when he dragged out three rockers from the old days: "Cortez the Killer," "Down By the River," and my favorite, "Cinnamon Girl" (see the video below from a live show in New York a few years ago) and did them justice even without a backing band. People around us were yelling for "Old Man," but really, can a man who is now officially a senior citizen sing that song without seeming deluded? I looked around me and noticed how old everyone looked--the dressed-to-the-niners, the bleary-eyed hippies in their tie-dyed t-shirts--and then realized that most of these folks were my age (mid-50s) or younger. An unwanted epiphany that did not spoil a great show.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Neil, Neil, and I

Over the past year, I've become good friends with a co-worker (or “bro-worker,” as he was dubbed by yet another co-worker); let’s call him Neil. We initially bonded over music; though our tastes were not especially similar (he likes punk and U2, I like 60s bubblegum and the Beatles), we found common ground with New Order. He turned me into a fan of Joy Divison and, well, he at least tolerates most of the bright glossy pop confections on my iPod. But we also discovered that we are both fans of Neil Young. So when we found out that Young was playing Cincinnati in May as part of his current solo tour, we made plans to go.

Neil Young has spent the last 40-some years flying high and low, in, around and through the pop culture radar, and he remains one of the few rock musicians from the 60s to sustain a viable career making new music and continuing to hit the album charts with relative frequency well into the 21st century--his latest album Le Noise hit the top 20 when it was released last fall.

One reason he's lasted this long may be his chameleon-like quality. Like Madonna (yes, I'm comparing Neil Young to Madonna), Young has re-invented his image and his music frequently, and in doing so brought new and younger fans into his circle. I imagine the average pop music listener thinks of Young as a folkie; he began his career in 1967 with folk-rock group Buffalo Springfield, his only top 10 hit was 1972’s "Heart of Gold," a folkie-strummer if you ever heard one, and most of his highest-charting albums (Harvest, Comes A Time, Harvest Moon) have a quiet folk-country vibe.

But most of his hardcore fans think of him as a rock & roller, pure and simple--though he's anything but pure and simple. From the beginning he was hard to pin down; his Buffalo Springfield songs were squarely in the pop-folk genre except for the suite-like 6-minute "Broken Arrow" with its almost avant-garde use of atmospheric sound (you can’t really dance--or even sway--to it) and the slow, slightly spooky "Expecting to Fly," with its opening and closing chords right out of the Beatles’ "Day in the Life" by way of Enya. On his second solo album he produced three lasting FM radio rock classics: "Cinnamon Girl," "Down By the River," and "Cowgirl in the Sand."

After Harvest and "Heart of Gold," Young produced three albums that have become known among fans as the Ditch Trilogy, because on the liner notes to his compilation album Decade, he says he took a detour out of the middle of the road and into the ditch. All three albums (Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and especially Tonight's the Night) are sloppy, almost primitive sounding--an early grunge style, maybe--and filled with performances which were largely alcohol-and-drug induced, and songs with depressing and defensive lyrics, some about the dark side of the drug world, triggered by the deaths of band member Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. These were not big sellers, but they cemented Young’s "street cred," so to speak, among his harder-rocking fans.

In 1979, he recovered commercially with Rust Never Sleeps, an album that is almost exactly 50% folkish acoustic songs and 50% noisy rockin'-out songs with his grungy band Crazy Horse. Probably if the average person knows any other Neil Young song besides "Heart of Gold," it’s "Hey, Hey, My, My" with the line, "It's better to burn out than to fade away," which became notorious after Kurt Cobain quoted it in his suicide note. Since then, he has recorded rockabilly, electronic music, more folk, more noisy rock, protest songs, love songs, and hit a late-career high in the mid-90s when he cut an album (Mirror Ball) with Pearl Jam. Of course, I guess since he’s still going strong in 2011, "late-career" is not the right phrase.

My friend Neil considers himself a diehard Neil Young fan, knowing obscure songs and lyrics (like "Last Trip to Tulsa": "Well I woke up in the morning/With an arrow through my nose/There was an Indian in the corner/Tryin' on my clothes") and having seen him in concert many times over the years. But I probably know more, "academically" speaking, about Young's career and personality--at least partly because I read the huge biography Shakey. Neil and I come at Neil Young from different sides of the 1977 career hinge Decade, a 3-LP set collected from the albums of his first ten years. My favorite Young albums are all pre-1980 (After the Gold Rush, Comes a Time, and Rust Never Sleeps); my friend Neil doesn't seem to think in terms of favorite albums, but he knows very little from Young's early days except what's on Decade, tends to like Young's long crazy songs such as "Tulsa," "Like a Hurricane," "Cowgirl in the Sand," and "Cortez the Killer," and he's a fan of the Kraftwerk-like electronic album Trans. So I imagine on our road trip to Cincy on Tuesday, we'll give each other crash courses on our areas of expertise. I'm looking forward to a long strange trip and will report back on the concert soon. (The video below is of "Sample and Hold," one of the Trans songs)