I was listening to Neil Young's 1983 album Trans before I wrote this column. Arguably one of the strangest albums made by a pop artist of Young's stature, the album features six songs recorded with the now-antiquated synthesizers of the day and vocals filtered through a vocoder to sound like a horny Atari creature. In its own strange way ("Computer Cowboy" sports a digitized howling coyote), it's beautiful, a whimsical ponderance of love in the future dedicated to Young's severely disabled son Ben, a quadriplegic born with cerebral palsy who relies on machines in part for survival. I love the album, which puts me in the severe, almost-unforgivable minority among critics -- and among strident Neil Young fans, who generally view the album as a misguided mistake. Music mogul David Geffen even sued Young back in the day for making "noncommercial music" for his label, with Trans.
As a Young devotee, I am something of an anomaly. David Sheperd Grossman is, too. The local singer, songwriter and barroom performer spent his formative years musically worshiping Young, going so far as to study Young's badly made 1979 concert film Rust Never Sleeps, also the name of the brilliant album pieced together from the same live tapes.
"Neil is special," says the 37-year-old Grossman, who, like Young, also has a son with cerebral palsy, albeit a milder form, and the emotional responsibilities that come with it. "He's out there, but he makes sense to me."
Grossman, along with other veterans of the Phoenix bar and session wars including frequent Glen Campbell drummer Gary Bruzzese and Gatlin Brothers pedal-steel guitarist Mike Smith, performed a riveting set of Young songs in the archetypally divey atmosphere of Joe's Grotto in Phoenix last Tuesday.
Like Neil, equipped with a harmonica holster around his neck, Grossman stood before his audience, composed mostly of his contemporaries and older. "I'm going to turn into Neil," the jovial, stocky musician promised. "It'll happen right in front of your eyes."
The performance wasn't perfect, but that in a sense made it more poignant. These were guys who've spent their lives wanting to be like Neil, and here was their chance to mimic and honor their idol. Grossman butchered the melody to "Cortez the Killer." Several times, as on "Like a Hurricane," the band stumbled on the chord changes. Grossman's attempt at a high-register Young vocal impersonation also fell a little flat.
Yet what the band lacked in technical proficiency it more than made up for in feel, which is the essence of Young's brand of raw country, folk and punk music. On that same "Cortez the Killer," Grossman launched into an extended solo that mirrored the passion and texture of the original; he admitted to "losing myself" in the music as he played. Bruzzese's drumming brought an added particular energy to the infectious candy of "Lotta Love" and a surprising power to the transcendent "Powderfinger," which, in terms of rhythm, actually eclipsed the version on Rust Never Sleeps. The musicians, collectively billed as the Harvest Band, made it clear that these songs meant a great deal to them personally and that their enthusiasm should be shared.
"I think [Young's] the most emotional artist there is. He's a healer. He can bring you out of a slump," Grossman says.
"Here's actually one of the real guys that hasn't been selling out," adds bassist Andy Kern in what seemed like a transparent potshot at the eternal suckiness of Crosby, Stills & Nash.
The timing of the Harvest Band's gig may have been nearly perfect. Next month, the 58-year-old rock 'n' roll Rasputin will release perhaps his weirdest record since Trans, a concept album about a fictional town and environmental decay called Greendale.
Kern says the idea to perform the set came recently during one of Grossman's regular Thursday night gigs at Macayo's in Scottsdale.
"It was one of those solo, soft music gigs when nobody's listening," says Kern, the de facto "musical director" for the Harvest Band -- the title just means he owns the biggest CD burner. An attending Kern decided to crash the gig and sat in with Grossman as they spent the rest of the night playing Young songs. From there, the idea took off.
Grossman says the Harvest Band's performance may only be a one-shot deal. The excitable singer also obsessively enjoys the music of Cat Stevens, James Taylor and Tom Waits and often impersonates those singers in his sets as well. He suspects the Tuesday nights at Joe's Grotto may morph into an all-encompassing tribute night, but as the Harvest Band show proved, Grossman and the others have the proper amount of passion to pull it off.
"If you can't beat em, be 'em," Grossman recites. "That's sort of been my motto with this."
Ozzfest, which rolled through Cricket Pavilion on a broiling hot July 2, is a corporate festival for an audience that otherwise wouldn't normally want anything to do with a corporate world.
At the pavilion, parking was $15. Drinks were on the expensive side, too (why anyone would have imbibed alcohol in that heat is beyond me). Sony had its ubiquitous PlayStation booth set up for the kids and the misanthropes. Other merchandise was sold in a series of black-and-red tents known as Ozzfest's "Village of the Damned." It was the type of setup for the smiley-guy, khaki-short, tie-dyed-shirt-wearing crowd that normally attends these types of all-day affairs.
Those folks stayed home. In their place came the heavily tattooed, black-bandanna-wearing, black-eye-shadow-wearing, lip-pierced, pickup-driving followers of Ozzy Osbourne, Marilyn Manson, Korn and the event's other headliners. You know, the sort that normally don't come out during the day and looked out of place under the baking sun.
The event unfolded on two stages. The main stage was reserved for bands with intense music industry support, which is to say, artists with the focus-group-tested style of populism. Local active rock station KUPD-FM sponsored the festival (its annual U-Fest morphed into this year's Ozzfest stop). Disturbed, the prime example of nü-metal's growing artlessness, plopped through its set, led by the laughably hokey David Draiman.
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"Apparently, the Africa hotness of this weather is fucking with our equipment," Draiman said during a protracted delay. Without skipping a beat, Draiman launched into a plea for the audience to make as much noise as possible. The band, he intimated, could thrive off that energy.
The festival's second stage, however, featured bands that couldn't get on the radio if they blew every program director in America. These acts included the notoriously intense British death-metalers Cradle of Filth. The band looked positively out of place in their black-leather, studded stage outfits and macabre makeup. Lead singer and chief mouthpiece Dani Filth, in his best demonic voice, implored the crowd to use their "fried brains" to inspire the band, which launched into such growling odes to the fucked-up afterlife as "The Forest Whispers My Name."
It was the most welcome aspect of a day otherwise filled with suffering and banality.