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Piss and vinegar: Neil Young and Crazy Horse at SPAC. Photo Martin Benjamin

Out of the Blue and Into the SPAC
By Kirsten Ferguson

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Lucinda Williams
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 4

‘While we celebrate the independence of this country, some people can’t sleep tonight,” announced Neil Young while onstage at Saratoga Performing Arts Center last Friday, July Fourth, during his introduction to “Bandit,” his new acoustic song about a “damaged” Vietnam veteran named Earl. Earl and his extended porch-sitting clan were the central characters in Greendale, Young’s well-intentioned but meandering “musical novel” about three generations of the troubled Green family. The story of Greendale, a fictional rural town in California, was told through theatrical sets, miming actors, large video screens and Young’s new songs, which ranged from a countrified pipe-organ funeral dirge to ballads with Young’s gloriously ragged guitar solos.

During the Independence Day show, both Young (who is Canadian-born but lives in the United States) and opener Lucinda Williams displayed the conflicted feelings of Americans who have love for their country but find it to be a seriously F’d-up place. While Williams dedicated her aspirin-bitter song “American Dream” to the “everyday average person who’s forgotten in this country,” Young’s 10-song concept piece pinned the blame for American ills on the rocker’s favorite targets: polluters, “dirty” corporations, a corrupt government that punishes dissent, and media with no concern for personal privacy (by the end of Greendale, a crew of reporters has hounded the main character, Grandpa, to death).

In Young’s made-up musical world, characters longed for a simpler time: Grandma Green cruised in an El Dorado while pining for the “summer of love,” and Grandpa’s last words in part were, “A little Mayberry living could go a long way.” Unfortunately, the overly simplistic message of Young’s moral parable—equal parts nostalgia for the old days and paranoia for the new—was made to seem more naïve by the trappings of the show’s theatrical elements: purposefully crude set pieces, cartoonish video projections, and actors awkwardly lip-synching to the songs’ lyrics. In the performance’s most astute moment, a cartoon billboard reading “Clear Channel: Support Our War” flashed on the video screen, mocking the very entertainment conglomerate that produced the SPAC show.

The more bizarre elements of Greendale came to a head during the final number, “Be the Rain,” when the show’s 20-or-so cast members—cops, Vietnam veterans (including Young’s wheelchair-bound son dressed as a vet), eco-activists and a sea captain played by Russ Tamblyn—danced across the stage, waving an American flag and pumping their fists as Young sang “Save the planet for another day.” Although the conclusion of Greendale had come a few numbers too late, the SPAC audience responded with adoring cheers. Young, who had been booed during the musical piece at a concert just days before, looked downright grateful for the applause.

Some fans might have been less forgiving if they hadn’t known that Young would justly reward their patience. (“I haven’t forgotten my old songs,” he promised at the start of the show.) As Greendale set pieces were curtained or removed, the video screen displayed clips from 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps concert footage, priming the crowd for a near-hourlong encore of vintage material that found the rocker still full of anti-establishment vinegar. On “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” Young stabbed his finger at the crowd emphatically while singing, “They give you this/But you pay for that.” The song ended with Young hunched over in paroxysms as he peeled out licks on his guitar. After electrifying versions of “Sedan Delivery” and “Powderfinger,” Young played the lesser-known “Prisoners of Rock and Roll,” a searing attack on record companies from 1987’s Life album. The show closer, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” was written by Young as an indictment of failed American domestic policy, but it’s doubtful that many in the audience grasped the song’s lyrical subtleties beyond the anthemic chorus.

“I love this country, but this song represents my views about what’s going on,” said raspy-throated songwriter Lucinda Williams, dressed in a straw cowboy hat with stars and stripes on the side. She then spoke-sang the staccato words to “American Dream,” a dire, impassioned song about the disenfranchised and the down-and-out (Native Americans, Vietnam vets). During an opening set that drew predominantly from her last two albums, Essence and the recently released World Without Tears, Williams’ minimalist yet spot-on band (featuring Doug Pettibone on guitar, Jim Christie on drums and Taras Prodaniuk on bass) added a bar-band brawl to quieter numbers like “Sweet Old World,” “Righteously,” and “Essence.”

The crossover kid: Norah Jones at Proctor’s. Photo: Martin Benjamin

Wherever the Road May Take Her

Norah Jones, Gillian Welch
Proctor’s Theatre, June 30

When Norah Jones received her Grammy statues this past spring just prior to the announcement of last Monday’s concert, it meant that the show quickly sold out. However, even without the industry wins she may well have filled the regal hall. Her music mixes jazz with pop in a manner that has crossed over demographic and marketing boundaries in past decades for such performers as Nat King Cole and George Benson (one key difference between the two of them and Jones though, is that they already had careers and credibility within the jazz world when they crossed over). The enormity of her success has been because of the breadth of her appeal—middle-agers are delighted that recognizable timbres and tempos fill the airwaves, while inquisitive teens are given a friendly doorway into jazz-flavored songcraft.

The concert was the final night with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings opening, and clearly a great deal of camaraderie had developed between the two bands. Jones even introduced their set, which was made up primarily of requests from her and her band. It showcased both Welch’s recently released Soul Journey album as well as highlights from her previous titles. Welch is a deft writer, and her simple phrases ring true like the timeless classics that have informed her musical identity. She alternated between acoustic guitar and banjo, with Rawlings’ lead lines (on a vintage acoustic) dancing in and around the proceedings—underscoring, making buoyant and adding quiet dazzle to the Spartan and occasionally plaintive foundation. Their cover of “Manic Depression” recast the song in a slower tempo, but without a hint of cleverness; they simply made it work. Rawlings, who holds his guitar angled and out from his body in a manner that’s peculiarly all his own, slyly also used the song for his most fearsome soloing.

Jones has found herself in the enviable, if difficult, position of needing to transition from playing clubs to concert halls in less than a year. Consequently, her stage manner, which would’ve worked fine in an intimate setting, has needed to blossom quickly and comes off as a combination of forced and coached, occasionally finding a comfortably resonant voice of her own. She and her five-piece band eschew flamboyance for confidently articulated craft. The stage was wisely and elegantly designed to envelop the players and songs. Expensively lit and draped, it was an unobtrusive but necessary component in making what is essentially small-scaled music work in a large venue.

The set mixed selections from her multimillion-selling debut album with new numbers and assorted covers. It is, in fact, that latter category that offered some of the most satisfying moments. Jones’ voice is ideally suited to a surprising range of material, from the significantly rearranged version of Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart” that they opened with to Gram Parsons’ “She” and Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Sleepless Nights” (recorded by the Everly Brothers, among others).

Still young, Jones won’t be able to sustain this current level of sales and popularity. It will be interesting to see where she goes and what she does once the starmaking machinery and spotlights are turned elsewhere. She’s a talented singer, and if her good taste remains intact, the possibilities are intriguing.

—David Greenberger

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