Neil Young, Giant Center, Hershey, PA- 3/12
You know why I was looking forward to Friday? Because it wasn't supposed to rain and because I had nothing to do. It was going to be a great day. But then a friend of mine, a local rock promoter, ruined it. It was Friday afternoon and I had just woken up.
"Wanna go to Neil Young tonight?" he asked. I scowled at the ceiling as he told me that he'd put me on the guest list and could get me as many free tickets as I wanted. Something about the arena needing to fill a section. "Fuck!" I thought, "Now I'll have to go."
I pulled myself together and arrived at the arena just in time for the opening number. It was like being pushed into a room with a dozen naked nymphs and an open bar I accidentally stumbled into one of the most exciting rock shows of the 2000s.
The local music critic for the Patriot News began his morning-after review by admitting that, on paper, the idea of Neil Young touring with Greendale (a musical play) seems kind of, well, lame. He's right it does. But luckily for all of us, Young has once again "taken pure bullshit and turned it into gold."
Whatever the subtextural implications, the plot of Greendale is no breadwinner. Young claims that he came up with the story one song at a time. That much is obvious. It's train-of-thought Americana, not to be confused with spontaneous prose, and it only works because it doesn't need to. A 40-person cast acts out the plot with cheap props and a community-theater vibe, and Young narrates between songs. It sucks you into the story enough to buy it but it doesn't mean anything, necessarily. The plot is loose and adrift and what Neil is trying to say, as an artist, is sometimes obscured possibly by the fact that he's not trying to say anything specific but the mood and the sentiment prevail. The target itself may be blurry, but it has given Young some kind of focus upon which he is intent.
Lyrical mantras like, "Someday you'll find everything you're looking for," and "A little love and affection in everything you do…" become three dimensional as they hold context within the Greendale plot, are applicable to everyone in the audience, and also reflect a deep-rooted earnestness that is distinctly Young's own.
There's a clear attack on Clear Channel at one point, consistent with a more general front against mass media. And you could get away with saying that it's an eco-friendly play about freedom and family and the price of being human, but you could also argue that it's really just a story about a fictional small town in California.
When Young unveiled the project last year, it was generally presupposed to be a failure. Arena crowds don't want to watch a low-budget play with songs they've never heard before when they're paying on average something like $60 a ticket. They came expecting to see old man Young run through his glory songs. Some of them left disappointed; some of them left inspired. This is all going on the wire reports from 2003 when Young took Greendale on the road before the album was released. By now, audiences know what to expect and for those who care about such things have had time to become familiar with the material.
As for me, I hadn't heard a damn note of Greendale before watching the live performance, and I owe the Gods of Rock big time for that. I even sent them a thank you note after the concert, praising them for their foresight in keeping me away from any post-2000 Young material until now. (Then I offered them a sacrifice of the latest O.A.R. album, apologizing in advance).
I guess the Rock Gods answered with a hearty "You're welcome", because when I finished writing the above paragraph I took a lunch break and on my way home heard Neil Young being interviewed by David Dye on the World CafYoung was discussing the early Greendale shows when audiences were caught off guard. He recognized that some of those crowds got a little testy, but naturally his confidence in the show remained steadfast. And if it didn't, I'd be pissed. I'd be pissed because last night I would've watched a half-assed greatest hits rehash by an aging rocker instead of witnessing what is clearly a career highpoint of a rock n' roll vanguard.
From this point forward, when discussing Neil Young's legacy, you'll hear "Buffalo Springfield," you'll hear "CSN&Y," you'll hear "Heart of Gold," you'll hear, "Rust Never Sleeps," and you'll hear "Greendale."
Careful readers may have observed that, so far, I've omitted any hard details about the play itself, and I intend to keep it that way you can click on Neil Young's official website (www.neilyoung.com) and read several versions of the plot, as transcribed from actual performances. Young's narration varies slightly from night to night but he sticks faithfully to the plot. And the setlist, for the Greendale portion of the show, is obviously a top-to-bottom reading of the album. With a cast that lip-syncs certain lines and props reminiscent of high school theatre, the performance is on a clock with some but not much wriggle room.
Leave the wriggling to Act Two: Greendale ends, crowd gives a standing ovation, musicians clear the stage, roadie tunes guitar, lights stay off, Crazy Horse assumes their positions, crowd cheers some more, Neil Young comes back out, picks up guitar and BOOM!!! For the next hour, he blasts his way through a set of heavy hitters. Young jams them out with confidence, knowing that Crazy Horse is riding shotgun. The audience has already accepted that he was probably going to stay away from the big guns; so naturally, Young decides to hose everyone down.
Choosing "Hey Hey My My" is a calculated kick-off, but with Crazy Horse egging him on, Young lets out the ROCK and takes control of the stage like a lonely teenage bronkin' buck, leaning into his guitar, bending with the notes, banging his head, thrashing his feet, and bumping into bandmates as if it were a tribal ritual. It's so mesmerizing that I even forget to throw stuff in disgust when the band rips into "All Along the Watchtower." By the time I remember, the band is already three feet deep into "Love and Only Love" and I feel like making out with every girl in the audience in appreciation.
"Rockin' In The Free World" is the dynamite that demolishes the house. Extending the jam for a quick vamp while a snare drum is replaced, Young shouts the lyrics into the microphone, repeating some of them for emphasis, jamming out under the phrases, locking into a sludge groove with his band, and triumphantly closing the show. Damn straight it feels good!
It's Neil Young's finest tour in years and the type of show where the audience goes home feeling privileged. I know I did.
With its swipes at the media, watching Greendale while having a press pass in your pocket can be somewhat intimidating. This time out, Young isn't blasting the rock press; he's blasting Clear Channel, conglomerate-mentality, television news crews, and newspapermen. However, if you're a member of the media and you attend a Neil Young concert, it helps to keep in mind that Young's father was a sports-journalist.