Young is older and wiser
Neil Young’s reputation tags him as restless and forward-looking. But that doesn’t mean the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member doesn’t find inspiration in the past -- or in taking stock as he ages of the changes in his family and in the world around him.
Young introduced his upcoming album, “Prairie Wind,” in the first of two consecutive nights of concerts Thursday at the Ryman Auditorium, a 113-year-old former tabernacle that served as home to country music’s Grand Ole Opry during its most historic years, from 1943 to 1974.
The concerts were being filmed by Jonathan Demme, director of “Silence of the Lambs” and “Melvin and Howard.” Demme met Young after asking him to record a song for the soundtrack of his 1993 film “Philadelphia,” and he directed Young’s videos from the 1994 album “Sleeps With Angels.” Demme has repeatedly worked with musicians in his career, making the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense,” a documentary of English indie rocker Robyn Hitchcock titled “Storefront Hitchcock” and the Laurie Anderson-hosted PBS show, “Alive From Off Center.”
Turning “Prairie Wind” into a film was Demme’s idea. Demme had been especially supportive of “Greendale,” Young’s 2003 self-made film and storytelling soundtrack album. Young had sent Demme a copy of the album four weeks ago, just after he’d finished recording it in Nashville.
“Prairie Wind” is another of Young’s acoustic-centered albums, like 1972’s “Harvest,” 1978’s “Comes a Time” and 1992’s “Harvest Moon.” But it’s also as personal as 1975’s “Tonight’s the Night” or any other album from Young’s unpredictable career.
The songs were all written after recent dramatic events in Young’s life, including his 87-year-old father’s death in June and the singer’s brain aneurysm in New York City in late March, which required emergency neuroradiology.
“The songs came so quick, and they’re so real -- the reality of mortality,” says Elliot Roberts, Young’s longtime manager. “I think after all that he decided to only do work that’s important to him.”
The music also resonated instantly with Demme. The Oscar-winning director immediately contacted Young and Roberts, and offered to take a year off to make a film based on the album. He also persuaded Paramount Classics to distribute the film without having heard any of Young’s new songs.
“It happened that fast,” Roberts said Friday morning. “Neil never had thought of making a movie around this album, but of course we said yes right away. If a filmmaker as great as Jonathan Demme calls and says he wants to make a movie with your music, what else are you going to say?”
Roberts wasn’t sure what Demme’s plans are for the film beyond the concert taping. “I’ll be eager to find out what he has planned,” the manager said. “We all are.”
It’s a fair bet the result will be as much a portrait of Young as it is of his music. The album finds Young poignantly reflecting on his history, with songs for his father, for his three children (the last of whom left home this summer) and for his Winnipeg homeland, with constant references to farmlands, birds, wildlife and open spaces, which Young says have rapidly faded from view in his lifetime.
“This song is about growing up,” he said of “No Wonder,” the second cut on the 10-song collection, which he performed in sequence, without second takes. “It’s about things that are happening today and things that may never happen again.”
The album also includes an acoustic rave-up toast to Elvis Presley (“He Was the King”), a piano-and-strings hymn (“When God Made Me”) he’d premiered at the Canadian edition of the Live 8 concert; and a tender tribute to an enduring acoustic six-string (“This Old Guitar”) that Young rendered on an instrument he bought in Nashville 30 years ago that once belonged to Hank Williams.
He figured that the guitar last appeared at the Ryman in 1951, in Williams’ final performance at the Opry. “I’m glad to see it back here,” Young said, then looked skyward reverently. With help from Emmylou Harris on harmony and second guitar, Young started into the song, which opens with the lines, “This old guitar ain’t mine to keep/ Just taking care of it now.” He later performed “The Needle and the Damage Done” on the same instrument.
By drawing so consciously on his past, from the influence of country music and rock ‘n’ roll to that of his family and homeland, Young seemed acutely aware that he will turn 60 on Nov. 12.
During the concert, he cited several family members and friends who’d recently passed away. “We’re getting to the age where some of us start losing our parents,” he said, noting that his father fought dementia at the end of his life. The haunting, jagged title song begins with the line, “Trying to remember what my Daddy said/ Before too much time took away his head.”
He also referred repeatedly to the late singer Nicolette Larson, who recorded the hits “Lotta Love” and “Comes a Time” with Young and who died in 1997 of a buildup of fluid on the brain. Young also paid tribute to Vassar Clements, a famed hillbilly jazz fiddler who died Aug. 16 in Nashville, and Rufus Thibodeaux, a Cajun fiddler who died Aug. 12 and who had played on the “Comes a Time” album.
Later, he addressed other issues close to home. “I’m an empty nester,” he said in introducing “Here for You,” an openhearted letter to his grown children. “I never knew what that meant until I felt it.” Young spoke of how he’s written love songs all of his career, “songs for those young gals, dreaming about them and falling in love with them. But this one here, it’s a different type of love song.”
He also repeatedly referenced dreams and memories, from the opening song, “The Painter,” which says, “If you follow every dream, you might get lost,” to “It’s a Dream,” about youthful recollections of rural Canada. “Far From Home,” a cheerful midtempo tune powered by the three-piece Memphis Horns, recalls a childhood experience of listening to his father singing accompanied by an uncle and a cousin.
Young stayed on acoustic guitar or piano all night. Besides Harris and the Memphis Horns, his band featured steel guitarist Ben Keith, whom Young said he first met in 1970 during the sessions for his album “Harvest.”
Spooner Oldham, of the famed Muscle Shoals studio team, played organ and piano, and the rhythm section included bassist Rick Rosas and drummers Chad Cromwell and Karl Himmel. The Fisk Jubilee Singers and Nashville String Machine also joined on several songs. Besides Harris and the Fisk choir, harmony singers included the singer’s wife, Pegi Young as well as Diana Dewitt, Gary Pigg, Anthony Crawford and Grant Boatwright.
The band performed in Western-cut clothes, all in primary colors, with Neil Young dressed as a riverboat gambler in a wide, flat-brimmed hat and a tailored, gray linen suit. After performing the complete album in slightly less than an hour, the band took a break and returned for 90 minutes of classics from Young’s acoustic repertoire, including “Heart of Gold,” “I Am a Child” and “Old Man.”
The latter, released 33 years ago, finds Young addressing his father and telling him “to take a look at your life, I’m a lot like you were.” Young’s now older than the man he sang to in those lyrics, and “Prairie Wind” shows him taking his own advice, looking long and hard at his own life. What he finds is that he has a lot in common with all of us.