Page Two: Stagnation Is Apocalyptic
Neil Young's solo tour, Part I
All these things that don't change, Come what may.
But our good times are all gone,
And I'm bound for moving on."
– Ian Tyson, "Four Strong Winds"
Long a junkie with an addiction to the kick, I long for the moment where some aspect of life or culture accelerates or stalls, explodes, or disintegrates, where there is some extra charge vanquishing the calm, normal, and predictable that create the most difficult times. Obviously, the latter have now come to define my life: Any kind of rupture or eruption is rare. There was a time when ideas, movies, books, and music, not to mention both my work and life, were more like an abnormally extensive firecracker chain filling each day with endless explosions. After years, there are just not that many surprises left in life or culture. At this point, unexpected extra-charged times are even more important, both as spark plugs to life and because it really is great to be reminded they are still out there.
In my life, Neil Young has provided an inordinate number of unanticipated, explosive moments – not only with superb performances and exciting new work but also in his aesthetic daring, as he regularly moves ahead into unknown territory, pushing his work while challenging himself. A long time back, he could have settled into being "Neil Young," doing so with honor and not as a Holiday Inn lounge act. Instead of looking backward, his eyes are toward the future; his consistent aesthetic and more sporadic commercial successes have not restrained or bound him as they have other artists. Young has used his success as the reliable foundation to shove off of in search of where he hasn't been before to do what he hasn't done.
Ironically, music writers who routinely chide talents for not taking chances, after acknowledging and even admiring Young for his commitment to the new, as often as not then criticize or dismiss the work itself. Rarely has the critical community so poorly served an artist into the fifth decade of a stellar career. Abstractly approving his attitude of innovation, they seem in reality not to trust him, being far more comfortable with where he has been than where he is going. Citing specific critical responses to his current solo tour would just be setting up straw men – not that I'm above that, but not this time.
On this Twisted Road tour, Young performed at Bass Concert Hall this past Saturday evening, June 5. This time around, he's performing solo but electric as well as acoustic. As noted on one of the T-shirts being sold, "I said solo... They said acoustic."
In Toronto for the film festival seven years ago, Young did a live performance of Greendale because Bernard Shakey's film version was premiering. My sense of the critical response to both the show and the album was that it had been mixed, tilting toward the negative. This wasn't the result of a careful sampling or even based on certain trusted critics' reactions; it was a general sense. I know that regularly I have a not-quite-subconscious sense of critical response to a book, movie, play, album, performance, etc. In so many ways, this is the most insidious of the kinds of influence a critic can assert. The problem and fault is mine; critics don't do this intentionally. It is odd how it accumulates.
Invited to Young's concert, I figured: "How bad could it be? It's Neil Young!" The show knocked me out. It was a high school musical laid over a rock & roll hayride. All in the extended Young team had roles – roadies, musicians, sound men, and backup singers. It was a blast. Naturally, one of the criticisms was that it was like a high school musical. Yes! Yes!
When and where you least expect it, sometimes the culture can still surprise you. This was as much fun as I'd had at a rock concert in years. Not that I don't enjoy live music, but rarely am I so surprised or do I just smile as much as I did watching Greendale.
The next day, being interviewed by Elvis Mitchell, Young talked about how great it was to perform Greendale. Without making a big deal about it, he noted how obviously the performance was like a high school musical, its sensibility more "come on, gang, let's put on a show" than exhibiting any theatrical sophistication or pretentious refinement.
What he especially loved was that he got to play 10 new songs. As a result, he didn't feel as though he was in a Neil Young cover band.
The current tour features seven new songs.
As it was Saturday night in Bass, with Young alone on the stage making music and entertaining, so it had always been in his life. The same smashed against the different; stagnation is not just apocalyptic but simply unacceptable. Young's work is all part of a living, ongoing, creative quest. As interested as he is in music, he is just as taken with overall presentation – with tones, sound, noise, and textures. His songs are more than just words and music; there's sound, content, meaning, the profound, and the personal. He is never where he was, but where he has been has always informed his work.
The stage set was eloquent – minimal yet dense, simple yet complex. During opening act Bert Jansch and while we were waiting for Young, the stage was mostly dark. There were a number of instruments set about, including a pump organ, piano, and organ. There were a few hanging faux Tiffany lamps, making it look like an exaggerated living room. It was neither Mad Hatter excess nor The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari weirdness but rather a designer who just didn't care much about proportions.
The show began silent and in the dark. Young wandered out almost casually from backstage. The audience erupted into wave after wave of applause and cheers.
Young sat down on a chair, picked up an acoustic guitar. The show opened with "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" followed by "Tell Me Why." But this is not a review of the show; see Live Shots, Music, for Raoul Hernandez's take or online for any number of critical reactions. This is ... well, I'm not sure.
Even illuminated, the stage was more blacks, whites, and grays, with shifting and redefined shadows, silhouettes, and patterns of black and white. There were four large, rectangular screens at the back of the stage that were being projected on (from behind and in front), offering rich color, sometimes subdued but used to effect as visual emphasis, with long explosive runs of colors or black and white.
Young is always the artist and the showman, intensely focused on his songs but also conscious of the visual dynamics. Though he embraced the demeanor of a folkie, Young's performance, the lighting, and his presence, whether he was just sitting or moving about the stage, found him more often than not in an iconic classic rock stance without ever seeming posed.
In a set filled with both new and old songs, Young played acoustic and electric guitar, harmonica, organ, pump organ, and piano. Often, if not watching, a listener might realize that the music was being played by only one performer; with the new songs, and especially in the older ones, he often pushed the edge of the envelope, offering new musical textures that recast them.
Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to become friends with Eliot Roberts, Young's manager.I had a drink (7UP) with Eliot on Saturday afternoon before the concert; we talked about Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Neil (Roberts has managed Young for 40 years and managed Mitchell for 20 years). Several times during our talk, he would bring the subject back to Young's show that evening at Bass Concert Hall, emphasizing that it was such a knockout, exciting show. Sure, Roberts is Young's manager, but this wasn't the standard "my act is fantastic" schtick – and, regardless, he is to be trusted. Early on, he made it clear that it wasn't acoustic and that Young conceived the show as a whole – a carefully thought-through performance piece as much as a concert.
"When you leave the show, you're going to want to go create something," he said. Roberts was dead-on, as usual.
Next: Part II: Mostly L.A. Johnson.