[ Wednesday, June 18, 2003 ]

Going to Greendale

Neil Young brought his Greendale challenge to just outside Pittsburgh, PA on June 16.

For the most part, fans at Starlake Amphitheater accepted the challenge by joining Young on his musical trip through the fictional town of Greendale and embracing his performance of almost exclusively new, yet-unheard, and concept-based material. And the fact a 57-year-old musician was willing to challenge an audience in such a way said much about the performer. The easiest thing for Young, who was accompanied by his longtime Crazy Horse associates, would be to simply play a sing-along concert, cash his check, and move to the next town at this stage of his career.

However, anybody who has followed Young’s career knows that is not an acceptable option. He has always challenged himself and his audience, but maybe never to the level of his current tour.

Young’s path has never been that straightforward. Rather, it has turned and twisted through rock, folk, blues, country, rockabilly, and his technology-driven Trans phase - moves often horribly out of step with current musical trends, but always true to his own path. Now, it has journeyed into Greendale - a small seaport community that lent its name to his upcoming album and movie later this summer or fall.

Young performed 10 songs from the upcoming record, as he has done mostly throughout a recent European tour and a few American stops. The songs featured a cast of characters, like Sun Green, Grandpa and Jed, whose lives Young chronicled. There also was an onstage setting that included a jail cell, front porch, and giant screen that displayed constant images, leading one observer - Dan Hinchliffe - to describe the setting as a combination of The Wall meeting The Wizard of Oz.

Even with the unorthodox setting and onstage actors lip-synching many of Young’s words as he sang, his main challenge came about because most fans have not heard any of the songs yet. Many likely did not even know of the unique setup for the performance before arriving. That was the challenge for the audience ... to accept the departure from a standard concert or not, especially when not knowing the material.

The crowd accepted it. And often celebrated it.

Sure, some individuals likely cried themselves hoarse, trying to coax a favorite song from the band. Anybody who focused on that aspect of the evening missed the point and missed some of Young’s best material in a decade.

But for the most part, the crowd went along with the challenge: dancing, cheering, listening, and creating a mellow atmosphere throughout the open-air facility.

The challenge proved easier to accept because the music was quality, solid, romping Crazy Horse with a blues feel at times, and Young - not known for narrative songs with a few exceptions like “Powderfinger” from Rust Never Sleeps - verbally explained much of the story between songs. Young’s music told the tale of a family fighting for its survival, only to see it fractured at times, like when Jed shot a police officer during a traffic stop.

The incident led to a media circus that eventually pushed Grandpa until he died, “Fighting for freedom of silence / Trying to be anonymous,” according to the song “Grandpa’s Interview.”

Lines like those showed the audience’s attentiveness to the new material, as they drew loud rounds of applause - although the most noise came for the three-song encore of “Hey Hey, My, My,” “Sedan Delivery” and “Powderfinger.” Young’s Greendale material received possibly its strongest response during “Leave the Driving." During part of the song, images of Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary (and former Pennsylvania Governor) Tom Ridge flashed on the screens when Young sang, “But there's no need to worry / There's no reason to fuss / Just go on about your work now / And leave the drivin' to us / And we'll be watching you / No matter what you do / And you can do your part / By watchin' others too,” to loud cheers.

However, Young provided redemption and possible salvation from scenarios like those.

The Greendale portion of the show ended with Sun - a female - becoming socially active because of what happened to Grandpa. Young hinted at the optimism toward the end of “Leave the Driving ” when he concluded the song with the lines: “And as an afterthought / This must, too, be told / Some people have taken pure bullshit / And turned it into gold.” The bullshit showed the potential to become gold during the final Greendale song “Be the Rain” - one that would not exactly be labeled subtle in its environmental message. Still, while the cast danced on stage and Sun took occasional turns singing into a megaphone, Young showed the good capable of enduring through the paranoia, violence, and distrust.

Young, singing almost Buddhist philosophy, concluded the Greendale section with the lines: “Be the rain you remember fallin' / Be the rain / Be the rain / Save the planet for another day / Be the rain / Be the rain / Be the river as it rolls along / Be the rain / Be the rain / Be the rain, be the rain.”

For more information about Neil Young’s current tour or anything to do with his career, check out
Dave Sutor [3:54 AM]