I’ve always loved Neil Young.
For just about as long as I can remember loving music, Neil Young has been right up there in probably my top two or three favorite artists. But it hasn’t always been easy.
You see, when he is at the top of his game, there are basically two Neil Youngs:
One is the organic, reflective folkie responsible for mellow classics like Harvest, Comes A Time, and Harvest Moon. The other is the wild, thrashing guitarist who gave us Rust Never Sleeps, “Cortez the Killer,” “Like a Hurricane” and the rest… as well as, with his band Crazy Horse, some of the loudest concerts in rock history. But in between the time he spends making great records like those mentioned, Young has this really irritating habit of spending years – sometimes entire decades – doing goofy experiments.
In the 1980s, it was Trans and The Shocking Pinks. More recently, he has released wildly uneven work like the albums Are You Passionate? and Greendale.
Neil Young’s track record with film hasn’t been that great either. From Journey Through The Past to the jumbled 8-millimeter-looking mess that is Greendale, the problem with Young’s films (concert documentaries and otherwise) has been a consistently amateurish quality.
Even the Rust Never Sleeps film, despite the great music on it, plays as a somewhat dark and grainy-looking document viewed nearly 20 years later.
But the great thing about Neil Young is that you can always count on him to eventually find his way back home. And even though it may sometimes take 10 years for him to hit that one home run, when he does, he usually bats it clean out of the park.
Prairie Wind, the album Young released last fall, is just one of those records. Recorded in Nashville with longtime cronies including Ben Keith and Spooner Oldham, the album is a flawless return to the form of records like Harvest Moon. It is also quite possibly the most lyrically personal album of Neil Young’s career.
Last August, Neil Young premiered Prairie Wind with a pair of concerts at Nashville’s historic and acoustically pristine Ryman Auditorium. The performances were filmed by veteran filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who’s known for another great concert documentary, the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. The result is Neil Young: Heart of Gold, which finally gives this great artist’s fans the definitive film document of Young onstage that they’ve long awaited.
By carefully avoiding the clichés of most concert films – the quick edits, arty effects, and multiple camera angles – and instead focusing directly on what’s happening on the stage, Demme has made a film that captures all of the warmth of the music itself. The film also manages to communicate the unique and special atmosphere of the event, even while making it seem as intimate as though Young and company were performing the songs right in your living room.
A big key to this is the staging. For the majority of the film, Young and his band perform in various combinations ranging from Young, alone, playing piano or guitar to a huge ensemble complete with horns, strings, several backing vocalists and a gospel choir. They do so in front of a gorgeous pastel yellow prairie backdrop (which occasionally changes to a deep blue) that matches the color of much of the music you hear in the film.
For the first set, Young concentrates on Prairie Wind‘s deeply personal songs. The album was made around the time when Young’s father passed away and when Young himself faced his own brush with mortality, which appeared in the form of a brain aneurysm. Consequently, the songs focus on themes of life, family, and mortality. Although there is an intimate, organic quality to many of these pieces, the performances, from both Young and his band, project a certain intensity that is no less powerful when the songs are relatively quiet. The expressions on Young’s face as he performs these songs are often every bit as intense as on his most cranked-to-11 shredding with Crazy Horse.
Young’s between-songs comments are also very revealing. Introducing Prairie Wind’s title track, he begins telling a story of watching his father struggle with dementia before his death, then allows the song’s opening lyrics to finish the tale:
“Tryin’ to remember what my Daddy said, before too much time took away his head…”
On “This Old Guitar,” Young talks about how the guitar he is playing was once owned (and played in this same Ryman Auditorium) by Hank Williams Sr., and how he is merely the instrument’s present caretaker. On “When God Made Me,” another of Prairie Wind’s many songs dealing with issues of mortality, the artist seems to be trying to come to terms with his own spirituality.
On another song, “Here For You,” Young talks about his 21-year-old daughter leaving the nest for college and tells the audience that he wrote this love song for her. In a humorously touching moment, he then catches a glimpse at wife Pegi behind him and quips, “I still have a few of those left.”
It is moments like this – and there are several of them in the film between Neil, Pegi and several members of the band – that give Heart of Gold much of its uniquely intimate feel.
For the second set, Young turns to the older material of Harvest, Harvest Moon, and the often overlooked Comes A Time, whose title track is sung as a duet with Emmylou Harris, who is still as beautiful as ever even with snow-white hair.
The gorgeous title track of Harvest Moon, one of Young’s best songs ever, is sung here as a warm lullaby punctuated by Ben Keith’s chiming pedal steel and an actual broom being swept rhythmically across the floor. Talk about organic…
For “Old Man”, Young tells the story of how he wrote the song for the caretaker at his ranch as an answer to the question “how does a young fella like you afford all this?” Neil answers that he’s just lucky.
Heart of Gold is not just a great concert film, but a rare and surprisingly intimate glimpse into one of our greatest artists, who at 60, appears to be just getting warmed up.
You’ll find Glen Boyd sharing his Thoughtmares about everything from music to politics to professional wrestling at his blog The World Wide Glen: Welcome To My Thoughtmare