In what may be his strangest career turn yet, Young is throwing to his audience the biggest curveball in 20 years, a period when he zigzagged between techno-rock, rockabilly and country music. Many fans are leaving the new shows baffled and disappointed. Yet the few entering the concert with an open mind may leave thinking they've seen Young's best work in almost a decade.
With most of Young's tours, fans normally contend with not knowing if they'll hear the mellow folk singer side of Neil or the hard-rockin' godfather of grunge -- or neither. But this tour, they're getting Young, the Nathan Lane of old hippie white guys with guitars. Unlike any show he's done before, Young is performing a "musical novel" called Greendale, also the name of his and longtime on-again, off-again backing band Crazy Horse's new album due in mid-August. With elaborate sets and video screens filling the stage, it's a theatrical presentation closer to a postmodern Broadway musical than a traditional concert.
It's not a rock opera. Young sings all the songs with actors lip-synching his lyrics. For the first two hours, Young and Crazy Horse play the 10 new songs from the Greendale album. While he eventually plays a string of hits and familiarities, it merely feels like he's rewarding the audience for sitting through the first part.
"I'm thankful for my old songs," Young said at a July Greendale outing at Jones Beach in New York after a few protesting fans tried to get him to change his set list. "But I'm also thankful I don't have to play them every night." In fact, one of the highlights of the new show is hearing Young talk. Since few people in the audience have a clue what's going on (and if they do, it's only a vague clue), he talks -- and talks a lot -- to explain the action.
Set in Greendale, a small, fictional California town, Young's story focuses on three generations of the Green family, and delves into Young's views on war, the environment, oil, police, big business's cozy relationship with Washington and the power of the media. In the story, Grandpa Green is a crusty old coot longing for the good old days. His son, Earl, is a Vietnam vet who paints psychedelic paintings no one buys. Earl's daughter, Sun Green, is a small-town girl looking for adventure who becomes an environmental activist, and Cousin Jed is a drug dealer who shoots a cop named Carmichael. In classic, weird-Neil fashion, Young says Earl is the main character, yet no actor represents him, and he appears only during video flashbacks. Go figure.
As for the plot, nothing is linear. The first half deals with the changes in American small-town life. If mother nature was on the run in the 1970s in "After the Goldrush," it seems like America and everything else has joined it in fleeing in the 21st century. Then, near the end, the story makes a huge leap, with Sun leaving home to save the environment by attacking big business and its holy matrimony with the current White House.
Grandpa's family is clearly falling apart, but instead of hurriedly moving the plot along, the songs are more often character studies that Young uses to get his different points across. In the opening song, "Falling From Above," Grandpa tells Sun, "A little love and affection in everything you do will make the world a better place, with or without you." Then during "Devil's Sidewalk," with a video behind him of a billboard that reads "Support Our War," a nameless character sings "I believe in love and I believe in action when push comes to shove." Is Young, a vocal Reaganist two decades ago, in favor of the recent war with Iraq? It's hard to tell. The images are as oblique as a dream. The show ends with the entire cast singing a big, bellowing number reminiscent of Broadway's current apocalyptic musical Urinetown.
Take away all the accouterments, however, and the Greendale shindig is still a Neil Young and Crazy Horse concert. The band still rocks. "Devil's Sidewalk" and "Leave the Driving" are straight-ahead rockers, while "Double E" is eclectic blues, and "Sun Green" sounds reminiscent of "Heart of Gold." Another highlight of the show is "Bandit," which Young performs alone with his acoustic guitar. But the song in which Young really shines is his elegy to the fallen cop, "Carmichael." It's a moody, atmospheric piece in which Young plays some of most melodic lead guitar of his career.
While the band is in top form, they're not visually exciting. On keyboards, longtime second guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro (who didn't play on the new record) is stationary, as is drummer Ralph Molina. Bassist Billy Talbot circles Young as he stomps around during his leads. So the sets and characters, in that regard, are almost a relief for having something to look at.
But the audience has come to see the Young they know, and mostly, they leave disappointed. He's ending each show with the classics "Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)" and "Rockin' in the Free World," and some lucky fans have heard "Down by the River," "Cinnamon Girl" and "Mr. Soul." People aren't getting the show they expected, but they shouldn't be surprised.
Unlike his former bandmates in Crosby Stills & Nash, Young, throughout his career, has refused to coast on past success. He's often experimented with his art. In 1983, fans were shocked when he released Trans, an album of electronic music. It was a short-lived phase, but instead of returning to the old Neil, he formed a rockabilly band called the Shocking Pinks and released Everybody's Rockin'. He's obviously vitalized by change. Unfortunately, baby boomers shelling out close to $100 a ticket in some cases want nothing more than to hear the songs of their youth.
While one can appreciate Young's desire to have his audience experience Greendale with virgin ears, it does seem a little unfair to spring it on people who are unaware. Young hasn't marketed the show as a theatrical experience, nor has the audience even had a chance to hear the music yet and decide for themselves, unless they brave the file-sharing realm and download sketchy live MP3s from Europe. Even Lou Reed, perhaps the crankiest man in rock 'n' roll, gave fans a heads up when he shifted gears into theatrical concept shows.
The issue becomes: What kind of warning does Young owe people who only want to hear their favorite songs? While jazz audiences never know what they'll get, rock, or at least arena rock of the established, non-jam-band-oriented type, doesn't normally work that way. Young isn't afraid to push his audience to the point of annoyance, but it also appears he doesn't trust them to pay to hear this new music. It's fair to feel ripped off, but a better tack is to just accept it's not what you expected and realize it's still Young, and that, like a legendary 1978 jaunt that birthed Young's album Rust Never Sleeps, this could be one of those tours that's talked about for years.