Hal Willner's Tribute to Neil Young
Vancouver Cultural Olympiad
Queen Elizabeth Theatre - Vancouver, BC
[February 18, 2010]
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2010, Volume 17, #3
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Tue March 16, 2010, 06:30 AM CDT
By nature, musical tributes are risky propositions. There are several reasons for this, though the most obvious is that it often is impossible to supplant an original work. Any musician participating in a concert honoring an icon inevitably must find a way of breaking through the wall of listeners’ preconceptions. On occasion, cover versions of songs — Jimi Hendrix’s All along the Watchtower and Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, for example — become revered and accepted on their own merits. However, this is the exception to the rule. The more idiosyncratic and individualized that a performer’s work is, the more likely it will baffle those who attempt to interpret it. Arguably, Neil Young’s output falls into this category. Though his tunes are relatively easy to play, at least from a technical perspective, very few of those who have recorded his material have succeeded in embodying its spirit.
The recent MusiCares tribute to Young is a good example of a well-intentioned event that went awry. It featured talented musicians but failed to say anything new about Young’s work. Despite some rather wonderful performances, the whole effort fell inexplicably flat. The show should have yielded an incendiary night of music. Instead, it rarely escaped its pedestrian predictability. Perhaps, this was because only the most obvious songs were performed. Or, maybe, it was the selection of artists who were invited to honor Young. With few exceptions, the singers failed to put their own egos and personas aside, and this prevented them from grasping the things that are essential about Young’s material.
Thankfully, these are pitfalls that Hal Willner, the musical director of Saturday Night Live, managed to avoid while planning the tribute that was held in Young’s honor as part of the Vancouver Cultural Olympiad. By choosing musicians who had little contact or shared history with Young and by incorporating younger artists into the program, Willner dispensed with some of the baggage that hindered the MusiCares tribute. Additionally, the songs he selected for the assembled musicians to tackle were picked primarily from the far reaches of Young’s back catalogue. Willner’s creative decisions encouraged an air of unpredictable risk that was sorely lacking in the MusiCares concert.
None of this should be surprising to those who already are familiar with Willner’s past productions. Throughout his career, he has thrived on gathering top-notch artists and establishing environments that push them beyond their comfort zones. For the Young-themed event in Vancouver, Willner built a core band around a slate of studio musicians from New York and members of Montreal’s Broken Social Scene. The latter group’s Brendan Canning and performance artist Joan As Police Woman acted as the concert’s musical directors. As such, they devised basic arrangements for the material that the other artists were assigned to sing.
According to Willner, the vocalists were given only a few days’ notice about the songs they were to interpret. In this way, he was able to maintain a level of spontaneity that otherwise might have been lost. Young is famous for his mercurial nature, and as a way of honoring this spirit, Willner clearly did not want any of his collaborators to think too much about their contributions to the project. In practice, this looseness added to the success of the evening. The line-up rotated organically, and the revolving roster of guitarists, keyboard players, and singers kept things exciting during a program that lasted more than three-and-a-half hours. This format created a virtually ego-free environment because none of the participants were allowed to get too comfortable. Prevented from falling into old habits and tried-and-true processes, they had no choice but to relax, listen carefully to the other artists on stage, and serve the songs.
The performances at the Willner-staged tribute could be divided into two groups. First, there were the performers who did their best to recreate the songs faithfully. They joyously explored the singer-songwriter aesthetics that have always been a large part of Young’s routine. The rest of the artists followed an off-the-rails approach, where the musicians treated the material as a springboard for their avant-garde interpretations of Young’s canon.
Not surprisingly, the conventional performances were a rather mixed bag. Teddy Thompson offered lovely versions of Don’t Cry No Tears and I Believe in You that brought the house down, thereby proving that, regardless of the prevailing musical fashion, there is always a place for a good song that is beautifully sung. Similarly, Ron Sexsmith contributed thoughtful, beautifully phrased impressions of Star of Bethlehem and New Mama, shedding some much-needed light on a pair of oft-overlooked gems. Other highlights included a very psychedelic, full-band version of Mr. Soul that gave Julie Doiron a nice platform from which to unleash her unhinged vocals. Elsewhere, Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek offered a meditative take on Albuquerque. By contrast, Canning had nothing to add to Harvest Moon. Likewise, Alasdair Roberts’ version of The Needle and the Damage Done dampened the show’s pace, while Metric’s Emily Haines delivered a powerful, yet aimless rendition of A Man Needs a Maid.
Unfortunately, the guitar-god side of Young’s persona was given short shrift during the concert. James Blood Ulmer was the only musician who attempted to dig deep into the pyrotechnic grunge that long has been part of Young’s appeal. Ulmer uncorked a scorching rendition of Scenery, which established the tone for Eric Mingus’ astounding interpretation of For the Turnstiles. For many, the latter song was the highlight of the concert. With his spoken-word gospel take, Mingus deconstructed Young’s composition in a completely unexpected manner. When he returned later in the show to offer an inspired reading of On the Way Home, he revealed a level of subtext that no other performer has ever captured. For a few moments, Young’s prairie roots were nowhere in sight; the audience of roughly 2,000 was transported to the Church of Coltrane for some of the most uplifting, challenging music ever to grace a Vancouver stage.
In a similar vein, Joan As Police Woman stepped forward from her director’s seat in order to conjure a version of On the Beach that was mind-boggling. Singing with the kind of passion that Patti Smith would envy, Joan As Police Woman eviscerated the melody, ripping at her violin and throwing electric sheets of raw power at the audience. If the whole night had featured performances of this quality, the concert would have endured in everyone’s collective memory for decades to come. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. After 90 minutes, the pace of the show grew gratingly slow beneath the weight of too many pretty — yet unimaginative — selections.
The concert also included several marquee-level performers. Both Elvis Costello and Lou Reed made appearances, and their approaches could not have been more different. When Reed walked onto the stage in the midst of the opening set, the audience went crazy, and a show that had been marked by its egalitarian approach momentarily became a classic-rock circus. Thankfully, Reed seemed oblivious to the adulation as he ripped into Helpless. Though many people clearly loved his version of this omnipresent song, it was clear that Reed had given very little thought to his performance. He simply tossed out Young’s melody and recast it as his own anthem, complete with rock-god posturing and unimaginative guitar solos. He was far more impressive when he moved to the background to support Jenni Muldaur on a lovely, low-key rendition of Harvest.
Costello appeared very relaxed and happy when he sauntered into sight. He hammed his way through a beautifully executed, big-band version of Love in Mind that provided no indication of the scorching rock he later would contribute to the show. Wielding a huge, vintage Gibson, Costello went deep into primordial Neil Young territory, and he displayed a rarely seen prowess on the guitar as he romped through utterly shocking versions of Cowgirl in the Sand and Cinnamon Girl. Dancing like it was 1978, Costello cajoled Reed into delivering a punk-ish vocal for Fuckin’ Up that stirred the laid-back audience to its feet. Sensing that this was an impossible act to follow, many of the performers returned to bring the evening to a close with a lovely, if unremarkable, rendition of Only Love Can Break Your Heart.
It is unlikely that anyone who attended the Willner-led tribute concert went home unhappy. Yet, as people filed out of the theater, they were engaged in lively discussions about which performances were successes and which ones were not. Not surprisingly, there was no consensus. One only wishes that Young himself had flown to Vancouver earlier so that, before his appearance at the Olympic closing ceremony, he could have heard how others had interpreted his work. As someone who has long eschewed tributes and awards ceremonies, he likely stayed home on purpose. His decision to arrive in town at the last possible moment may have been calculated. After all, his emotional rendition of Long May You Run was a distinct reminder than no one can play Neil Young’s songs quite like the man who wrote them.
Of Further Interest...
Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young is
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