Hal Willner’s Neil Young Project – Prospect Park Bandshell (Brooklyn, NY)
At their best, Hal Willner’s tribute projects (which have included albums devoted to Kurt Weill, Disney movie songs and Edgar Allan Poe) can reveal unexpected things about both the source material and the performers. At their clunkiest, the boho producer/arranger’s efforts can come across as hipster cabaret gimmickry. The expansive Neil Young Project he organized for this year’s Celebrate Brooklyn outdoor concert series fell somewhere in the middle, reflecting fairly but not always flatteringly on the willfully erratic talents of its honoree.
With 25-plus musicians rotating through 39 songs from 37 years worth of recorded material, the set list opted for diversity over coherence. There were classics — “The Loner”, “Like A Hurricane”, “Southern Man”, “Cinnamon Girl” — along with deep-catalogue choices such as “Weight Of The World” from 1986’s Landing On Water and “Wonderin'” from 1983’s rockabilly exercise Everybody’s Rockin’. But the show necessarily lacked the key attributes that hold Young’s raggedy, overstuffed songbook together: his voice and his guitar.
In their place, it offered a range of performers deliberately selected for contrast. It’s hard to imagine another setting that could find Cat Power’s Chan Marshall sharing a stage with ex-Wall Of Voodoo yelper Stan Ridgway, Holy Modal Rounder founder Peter Stampfel, free-jazz skronker James Blood Ulmer, alt-chamber-rockers Bonfire Madigan, melancholy mood masters Mark Kozelek (of Sun Kil Moon) and Sam Beam (of Iron & Wine), Knitting Factory stalwart Elliott Sharp, androgynous crooner Antony, and literate Canadian folkies Jane Siberry and Ron Sexsmith. Not to mention English orchestral rocker Ed Harcourt and Vancouver harmonizers the Be Good Tanyas.
That sounds like a lot on paper, and it did in concert too. The moments that worked were arresting in ways both predictable (Marshall slouching in a chair and half-whispering the stark verses of “The Needle And The Damage Done”) and unexpected (Sharp and Bonfire Madigan improvising on sections of Young’s score for Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man”). Kozelek’s affinity for the mounting dread of “Powderfinger” was no surprise, but James Blood Ulmer’s roaring R&B charge into “Fuckin’ Up” (from 1990’s Ragged Glory) created one of the evening’s few legitimate dance numbers.
Given the eclectism of the lineup, it was almost inevitable that someone (in this case, jazz/electronic producer Adam Dorn and Voluptuous Horror Of Karen Black diva Kembra Pfahler) would unearth something from Young’s infamous 1983 synth outing Trans. The result was a disco-shock rave-up of “Transformer Man” that sounded as bracingly out-of-place with the rest of the bill as the album itself does in Young’s discography.
On the other hand, as any dedicated Neil Young listener can tell you, that discography has plenty of dead spots. The concert’s leave-no-Neil-unturned mandate meant that albums as lean as Silver And Gold and Broken Arrow and even last year’s Greendale also got their place in the lineup, proving mostly that mediocre Neil Young stays mediocre no matter who’s singing it. Other songs simply proved resistant to interpretation; Kozelek and Sexsmith gave “Like A Hurricane” their best shot, but landed somewhere in bar-band territory.
The show lacked the consistency of Willner’s 2003 concert in the same series, a tribute to Leonard Cohen dominated by the extended McGarrigle/Wainwright family and simpatico performers such as Nick Cave and the Handsome Family. But that is partly because Young himself lacks the consistency of Cohen — and the caution, too. Cohen has recorded ten albums since 1968; Young has recorded somewhere in the vicinity of 30. If the concert revealed anything about the man behind the songs, it was just how restless, uninhibited and — for better and worse — unrefined an artist he is. He doesn’t edit himself, even when he should, and that’s the only way the good stuff gets through.
Still, there was something unsatisfying about the night’s finale, a too-brisk stomp through “Ohio” led by Ridgway in carnival-barker mode. The specificity of the song’s lyric and the urgency of its music don’t lend themselves easily to a spirited group sing-along, and it felt like a forced goodbye. It would have been peevish to complain (especially because Prospect Park is one of New York’s most pleasant greenspaces, and the Celebrate Brooklyn series charges a measly three dollars at the gate), but I was left wanting some kind of last word, some suitable sendoff.
I got it the next day at a matinee of Fahrenheit 9/11. When Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World” came blaring over the closing credits, as vigorous and uncompromising as anything in Michael Moore’s movie, it was an unexpected joy to hear Neil Young’s own voice again.