What: Concert by the music legend, with rising band from Athens. When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Where: Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. Cost: $43.75, $73.75 and $134.25, at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater box office, online atwww.ticketmaster.com, all Ticketmaster outlets, or by phone at 800-745-3000. More:www.tuscaloosaamphitheater.com.
Neil Young last played Tuscaloosa Feb. 2, 1973, so Thursday's show at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater will be many local folks' first shot at seeing the not-so-unknown legend in town.
As host of Alabama Public Radio's “All Things Acoustic,” Jeremy Butler opened last week's show with a pair of Young songs, and a pair by John Prine, who's playing the Bama Theatre the night after Young. Butler will probably open tonight's show with something similar, he said; tune in to 91.5 FM to hear.
Back in the day, even before that Memorial (now Coleman) Coliseum show, Butler was a teenager in Phoenix when he went to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the supergroup that had played its second gig at Woodstock. The concert Butler attended was at the Phoenix Veterans Memorial Coliseum in either 1969 or 1970, he recalled.
So he's seen Young live.
But never heard him.
“I distinctly remember Neil Young in that show, because he was totally frustrated with his equipment, and he was sort of fiddling with it, fiddling with it; he finally yanked out of the cord, stomped off the stage and never came back. That's why I say I've seen Neil Young live, but never heard him,” Butler said, laughing.
Which is unfortunate because he was really there to hear Young, not Crosby, Stills and Nash, who Butler saw at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater back in mid-summer.
“I always thought he had a more authentic voice than CSN, that there was something in the lyrics of his songs that touched me on a deeper level than something like ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes' or ‘Teach Your Children Well.' CSN always seemed more like fluff, and Neil Young seemed more like the real thing to me, as a kid.”
What that fit of pique showed Butler was not a rock diva attitude, but Young's unbending dedication, the kind of mono-minded passion that's caused him to follow hit records such as “Rust Never Sleeps” with wonkier concoctions such as “Hawks and Doves,” the new wave-influenced “Re-Ac-Tor” and the electronica experiment “Trans,” which baffled more fans than it won.
Young's career has defined eclectic, from acoustic-folk-country albums such as “Harvest,” veering off into experiments in film scoring, swing and electronic music, careening back into full-scale sonic assaults that found him dubbed the “godfather of grunge,” with bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth, the Pixies and more claiming him as a major influence. He's a two-time member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as a solo artist and a member of Buffalo Springfield.
He's directed or co-directed films including “Journey Through the Past” (1973), “Rust Never Sleeps” (1979), “Human Highway” (1982), “Greendale” (2003) and “CSNY/Deja Vu” (2008). Director Jonathan Demme (“Silence of the Lambs,” “Stop Making Sense”) has three times captured Young in concert documentaries: 2006's “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” 2009's “Neil Young Trunk Show” and last year's “Neil Young Journeys,” which will show Wednesday at the Bama.
An outspoken political advocate, Young is involved in alternative energy development, co-created the Farm Aid series of concert benefits beginning in 1985, and created The Bridge School, for children with severe verbal and physical disabilities. Thanks to Young's draw, Bridge School concerts have featured Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, the Who, Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Trent Reznor, Tom Waits, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, R.E.M., Foo Fighters, Metallica, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins, Paul McCartney and Dave Matthews, among others. His song “Ohio,” written about the Kent State massacres, became one of the rallying songs of the anti-war movement. More recent political statement-songs include “Let's Roll,” a tribute to the victims of 9/11 and “Let's Impeach the President” from 2006's “Living With War,” a barbed attack at the previous administration's policies.
Although not known as a singles artist, many of his works have broken through to radio and been included on film soundtracks. Young's elegiac “Philadelphia,” from the Tom Hanks film of the same name, lost the Oscar to Bruce Springsteen's “Streets of Philadelphia.” In his acceptance, Springsteen said Young should have won. In accepting the Best Actor Oscar, Hanks credited Young's song with helping him develop the character.
“I think that (Phoenix) incident shows his fanatical devotion to the sound of rock, to getting the sound just right, which persists to this day,” Butler said. “He's always been a strong advocate for vinyl over CD, over cassette, over digital.” For years, Young's been integral in the development of something called High Resolution Audio, a format he hopes will supersede current digital formats.
“His fanaticism about the sound of the music was obvious to me as a 14-, 15-year-old just coming in to rock, to see how seriously he took the way it sounded, I think, struck a chord with me. At that young age, I was also interested in rock as art, not just as pop, and part of art is to take seriously the sound of it.
“Even though I was drawn to the lyrics, I was also enthralled by his guitar playing on things like ‘Cinnamon Girl,' that sort of thick sound was so distinctive. I used to love listening to his electric stuff loud with my headphones on so I could hear every part of the song. Then I loved hearing the acoustic stuff, that ethereal violin moving through ‘Running Dry.' ”
The music alone would be a draw. Aside from experiments such as “Trans,” Young's created harrowing, beautiful, grinding, sweet and lovely songs that range from country through
folk and rock to an almost Roy Orbison-ish pop and all the way back to punk-grunge. Considering he mainly plays and writes on guitar, and that his vocal range isn't the widest or most technically perfect, Young has covered many miles of ground. Just consider some of the notable songs: “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “When You Dance,” “Cortez the Killer,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold,” “Harvest Moon,” “Long May You Run,” “Helpless,” “Like a Hurricane,” “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” “Rockin' in the Free World,” “Touch the Night,” “Mr. Soul,” “War of Man,” “Unknown Legend” and “Southern Man.”
But another reason some folks will be drawn to Young is that extreme sense of cool, the respect for a guy who's never bowed to fads or commercial pressure, who seems to never wear or play or do anything he doesn't want to. This is the guy who walked away from CSNY; heck, he even left Stephen Stills mid-tour once, without warning or notice. Just left because it wasn't right.
The Tuscaloosa News columnist Tommy Stevenson first saw Young was just three years back, at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, “when he did a draw-dropping version of ‘A Day in the Life' during which he tore up all the instruments on the stage, Who-like.”
Leaving CSNY at the height of its popularity was a gutsy decision, Stevenson said. Even before that, when the recording of “Ohio” hit radio within two weeks of the shooting, Young had earned Stevenson's utmost respect.
Young's star shines for those who can't remember Woodstock, too. Jack McCallion, a 21-year-old UA student from Georgia, is thrilled to be going to the Amphitheater show.
“It's not every day that you get the opportunity to see a band who is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in our own backyard,” he said. “I've been listening to ‘After the Gold Rush' since I was a little kid because of my mom, who has been a fan forever. Seeing Neil Young with Crazy Horse and the Alabama Shakes in the same night was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I can't wait.”
Young never bought into the celebrity machine, Butler said.
“He makes music the way he wants to make music, and whether he's a big pop star or not never seems to matter to him,” he said.
So Thursday's show with Crazy Horse, his longtime electric backing band, might go whichever way the prairie wind blows.
“I'd like to hear him play his older stuff, but it's not a nostalgia tour,” Butler said. “He's still making vital music. Maybe he's a little like Bob Dylan in that regard: His tours are based on what he's currently doing.”
Crazy Horse is the band Young started as a side project from CSNY. The first disc credited to Neil Young With Crazy Horse was 1969's “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” which familiarized many with Young's strained tenor, mournful lyrics and gritty extended guitar jams on songs such as “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” He's toured and recorded with the band on and off ever since.
In June, Young cut “Americana,” an album of folk standards by writers such as Woody Guthrie and Stephen Foster, backed by Crazy Horse. This tour is the first in nine years for Young with bass player Billy Talbot, drummer Ralph Molina and guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. Sampedro replaced guitarist Danny Whitten in 1975, after Whitten's death; the rest are original members.