The Roots, Patti Smith and Others Salute Rock’s Last Iconoclast
By Bill Reese
The writer Chuck Klosterman recently said that the thing that makes Neil Young so cool is that he doesn’t know he’s Neil Young. Over the last four decades, the Canadian-born singer/songwriter has become a rock legend. He’s played 60’s folk, heavy metal, psychadelia and experimental, digital music. Along the way he wrote some of rock’s most iconic protest songs, never afraid to ruffle the feathers of U.S Presidents, the national guard, and just about anybody from the south. Uncompromising, unapologetic, unmistakable and unforgettable, the only thing Young has ever sold out are concert tours.
New York’s Carnegie Hall was no exception on Thursday night when City Winery proprietor Michael Dorf put on The Music of Neil Young, a tribute concert benefiting several charities and organizations. Dorf’s annual series—which has celebrated the music of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. in recent years—recruited more than a dozen singers and acts to pay tribute to Young.
The show led off with singer/songwriter Joe Purdy, who nailed Young’s “Out on the Weekend” off Harvest. The massive, ornate Carnegie Hall enhanced the intimacy of Purdy’s guitar and harmonica arrangement, as every slide of the fret board could be heard through the massive, ornate room.
If you only remember Joan Osborne from “One of Us,” then you’ve missed the last 15 years where she’s cemented herself as one of the great interpreters of the Motown and soul canon. Backed by the evening’s phenomenal house band, Osborne gave a powerful performance of Harvest’s “Old Man.” Not to be outdone, soul singer Bettye LaVette sang her version of “Heart of Gold,” which she had originally covered in 1972. LaVette joked before the song that “In 1972 I was the only black girl in the inner city singing ‘Heart of Gold.’”
After back-to-back soul performers, J Mascis from grunge legends Dinosaur, Jr. came out with a full band. Mascis and company took a minute to get their gear straight; their amplifier hum and buzz injecting the kind of raw, rock energy that is not commonly found on the legendary Carnegie stage. What came next was a blistering, balls-to-the-wall rendition of “Cortez the Killer,” an 8-minute romp of thrashing guitar solos. Mascis’ long, gray hair drooped in front of him as he tore through the 1975 Crazy Horse track with stunning effortlessness.
The middle of the show was hit-or-miss, most notably Shawn Colvin’s cover of “Birds” marred by an inexplicable mandolin solo. It wasn’t until Cowboy Junkies came on and played a billowy, psychedelic version of “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” that the show began its long build-up to what would be an epic climax.
Glen Hansard—half of The Swell Season and Oscar-winning actor/singer/songwriter from Once—came out to play “Tell Me Why” the opening gem from Young’s 1968 opus After the Gold Rush. He adjusted the microphone to the height of his unplugged guitar and seemed to let his voice ring out through Carnegie Hall’s four-balconied house without the aid of the mic.
Some artists had been a little guilty of doing their best Neil Young impression while playing their selection for the night. The same could not be said for Aaron Neville’s performance of CSNY’s “Helpless.” The house band backed Neville, who’s signature, smooth yet staccato voice transformed the song so much that it could have easily been mistaken for one of Neville’s many career hits.
Many artists could have done “Rockin’ in the Free World,” but the honor went to Pete Yorn, who took on the song solo on acoustic guitar. Yorn began softly, then strummed with passion and fury, reminding all in attendance that some songs remain powerful no matter how much amplification is put behind them.
The big question mark of the night was how would The Roots take on Young’s “Down by the River.” At the beginning, the answer seemed to be conventionally. A four-member Roots (minus Black Thought) were backed by Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle from The Dirty Projectors and gave the song a slow, rolling groove. After strumming the last chord in the third chorus, ?uestlove began a slow rumble with his drums, and with that, The Roots had been unleashed. The beat sped up and ?uestlove started looking more like Animal from The Muppets. Meanwhile, guitarist/singer “Captain” Kirk Douglas and bassist Owen Biddle went completely apeshit. The epic solo went on for nearly ten minutes, culminating in one more fiery chorus, and a frenetic outro. The crowd went bananas, giving the Roots the first standing ovation of the night.
Patti Smith and her daughter Jesse closed out the scheduled set with Young’s somber 2005 ballad “It’s A Dream.” There were hopes that the man of the hour would come out to serenade the crowd, but Young was not in attendance. Even if he were, he would most likely be way too humble to do so. The crowd, instead, were delighted to a two-song encore, with all the evening’s artists singing gang vocals on CSNY’s “Ohio” and Crazy Horse’s “Out of the Blue, Into the Black.”
The performance raised more than $75,000 for the night’s charities, including the Church Street School for Music and Art, The Pinwheel Project, Music Unites, Young Audiences New York, The American Symphony Orchestra and FIXS—an organization that fixes broken instruments in public schools.
Bill Reese is a contributing writer to Officially A Yuppie. His articles include, Today the Green Grass - The Jayhawks Reunite and Kid A Grows Up. He is also an editor for Playbill Magazine.