For most, the big question was … would we get Neil the acoustic balladeer or Neil the feedback-spewing Godfather of Grunge?
How about Neil the off-Broadway musical director?
Before plaid was fashionable and ripped jeans bought off the rack, Neil Young was the essential folk-rock troubadour; known for solo guitar-harmonica shows and electric forays into feedback and the fuzz box, choosing neither to burn out nor fade away. But on his current 34-city tour, Young has gone in a new direction completely, and he uncorked a theatrical experience at Mohegan Sun Arena on Saturday that left the sold-out crowd deliriously stunned and amazed.
The entire tour is fashioned exclusively around a standard first set of material from “Greendale,” Young’s forthcoming new concept album. Young then appeases old-timers with a second set of Rust-era classics. “I still know all the old songs,” Young told the crowd as he went on. “We’ll play a few of ’em for you later.”
The latest in a rash of concept efforts for Young, “Greendale” follows a checkered past. “Trans” (1982), his visionary paean to the imminent wave of electronic music, was seen as a little creepy. His rockabilly experiment with The Shocking Pinks produced little else but “This Note’s For You,” a high-profile stab at the world of beer advertising.
Taking the crowd on a visit through his small California town, Young’s “Greendale” is at once his most personal and most political effort, telling the story of Earl and Edith Green and their offspring as they grow old and get knocked off balance in a world driven mad by corporations, the media and John Ashcroft.
The venerable Crazy Horse — Frank Sampedro on guitar, keyboard and vocals; Billy Talbot on bass and vocals; and Ralph Molina on drums — layed out familiar back-beat rock. Young and Sampedro delivered melodies with the fuzzed-out chords washes and three-note solos its fans craved. And the group combined vocally to achieve the strained harmonies that further burnish their hammered, time-worn sound.
In particular, “Bandit,” a Young solo on acoustic guitar, was chillingly pretty. “Be The Rain,” a surging call to environmental patriotism, exhorted: “We got a job to do. We got to save Mother Earth … Be the rain you remember fallin’.”
But the real activity took place around the stage, as a theatrical production using folk-art props and a levitating rear platform took us on a tour of Greendale, from the Green family farmhouse to a town jail that’s occupied clandestinely by Satan. The scenes on the rear pop-up stage happened in front of a video backdrop of photo montages, grainy live footage and overtly political messages. Up popped a billboard: “Clear Channel (Young’s concert promoter): Support Our War!” A CNN ticker beneath a seething portrait of Ashcroft said: “Patriot Act eroding civil rights.”
Listening to the lyrics, seeing the images and following the story, audiences get an uneasy feeling of lost domestic tranquility, the same Sherwood Anderson sense of latent dystopia in “Our Town,” updated for the 21st century. The overall quality of the production was similar to community theater: small-scale and folksy. The set design’s simplistic hominess gave Greendale’s imaginary environs a real sense of ambience. The crowd loved it — much more, it turns out, than the rehash of classics (including “Like a Hurricane” and “Sedan Delivery”) that were rendered without much innovation and the end notes lasting 10 minutes or more.
Not just a great rock show, “Greendale” was a dramatic story with compelling social import and complex, lovable characters. A real triumph for Young, and one of the most unique and surprising pop performances in recent memory.
Two years removed from being named Time magazine’s best songwriter, Lucinda Williams opened with “Drunken Angel” and then four new offerings from this year’s “World Without Tears.” Despite tinny sound quality, her band also rocked out solid covers of songs by Tom Petty and the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg before delivering two crowd pleasers from “Essence” (2001): the title track, which equates obsessive love with drug addiction; and “Get Right With God,” sung more with brimstone than irony.