Sunday, February 12, 2006

Neil Young's heartstrings

Even after listening to Prairie Wind a few times, I just thought it was a so-so Neil Young record- he'd done much more moving work when he was in his folkie phase, I thought. After seeing the recent Jonathan Demme movie Neil Young- Heart of Gold, I realized that I was dead wrong.

Performing the songs at the Grand Ole Opry with one of his alternate bands from Crazy Horse that dates back from the Harvest days, the songs gave off a beautiful but pained aura that I hadn't quite heard before. Even when he did a few songs from Comes A Time for an encore (with no less than 5-7 acoustic guitars backing him up), I also forgot how lovely that album was and had to dig that one up as well.

In the movie, Young only brandishes an acoustic guitar and occasional harmonica- no guitar rave ups here except for some engaging solos from Ben Keith's pedal steel. There's also great songwriter Spooner Oldham on keyboards (looking pained and worried himself in close-up shots) plus a female backing chorus (including Emmylou Harris and wife Peggi Young), male chorus, occasional horn section and gospel choir. But even in such a large configuration, the music still sounds homey and intimate, especially when Young talks to the audience about the songs. He talks of his father's dead, his daughter going to college, a guitar he's played that belonged to Hank Williams once but does so in brief clips that never sound mawkish.

After playing the new songs, he digs back to Harvest (which was in the spirit of what he's doing now and does include part of its band here) but skips most of his '80's and '90's work except for Harvest Moon (also in the same vibe).

As a treat, Demme himself was there after the film to answer some questions. He spoke of how the Ryman show was less than an hour and since they were filming it for a feature movie, that's not enough time. He coaxed Young into including more material from the oldies encore to fill in the gap along with brief interviews with the band at the beginning. To end off, he also talked Young into appearing alone on stage, singing "The Old Laughing Lady" (one of Demme's favorites) to an empty hall. Young said that he liked to stay after shows to observe the empty area anyway so he obliged. Demme cleared out the whole crew, even the camera guys so that it was only Young in the last scene with Demme as the only crew member left. Young would play the song as the credits rolled. Young finished the song and then got up to leave (still being filmed) but fumbled and had trouble opening his guitar case to put away his instrument. It seems that Young is used to his roadies and guitar techs to do that for him so he wasn't used to it.

Another story that Demme had about Young was from the movie Philadelphia. He filmed the opening sequence synched to Young's "Southern Man" and was hoping to get another kick-ass rock song from Young to use so that the movie's gay theme would draw in Young fans who wouldn't normally be into that. Instead, Young saw the movie and gave him a sweet, soft title song. While Demme was surprised, he found that he song worked perfectly for a sequence near the end. As it turns out, the same exact thing happened when he contacted Bruce Springsteen: he wanted a kick-ass tune and got a sweet song, which Demme accepted. Springsteen got the Grammy for that and said that it was for both him and Young.


Blogger John said...

Isn't it possible that the disc is still "so-so," but that his performance of those same songs offers significantly more than the recording? I too, found the disc to be pretty boring, but still want to see the film for the added dimension it will bring to Young's work. I may even go home and listen to the disc in a new light. I'd argue that this doesn't mean the disc is suddenly better, but that the circumstances of my listening experience simply improved.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Perfect Sound Forever said...

Yes, you're right. That's a good point. I did find that when I listened to the album at home, the songs did song better. I realize that might not be everyone's experience, even if they did like the movie.

8:43 PM  

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