For Neil Young, it must be hard to imagine a better place to unveil a new acoustic album than in a room that, in his words, “sounds like a big guitar.” From a listener’s standpoint, it’s equally difficult to imagine many icons pushing age 60 who remain capable of writing and performing new music that even begins to match their finest work.
Introducing the upcoming album, Prairie Wind, and entertaining the invitation-only crowd were just two of several objectives Young accomplished Thursday night (Aug. 18) at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. It was the first of two shows filmed by Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme for a concert movie and DVD expected to be released later this year. Demme, whose directing credits include The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia and the Talking Heads’ concert film, Stop Making Sense, will complete filming at the Ryman during Young’s Friday night (Aug. 19) show.
Young, who received an Oscar nomination for writing the title song for Philadelphia, recorded much of Prairie Wind earlier this year in Nashville. His record label describes the album as “reflecting his life’s journey,” and the theme became clear during the series of songs that dealt with his native Canada and family matters, such as his new life as an empty-nester and the recent death of his father.
Stylistically, Prairie Wind leans toward the acoustic songs of his 1970 album, After the Gold Rush, and two albums recorded in Nashville that took him in an even stronger country direction — 1972′s Harvest and 1978′s Comes a Time. At the Ryman concert, Young was backed by several longtime allies, including steel guitarist Ben Keith, guitarist Grant Boatright, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, bassist Rick Rosas and drummer Chad Cromwell. Adding texture to individual songs were fiddler Clinton Gregory, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, the Nashville String Machine and a horn trio led by Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns.
Young offered insights and humor in introducing songs and explaining what he went through in making the album. Mentioning that one of the new songs was inspired by a voice mail message left by one of his friends, Young joked, “I’m not gonna mention his name because I don’t share co-writer royalties.” Before singing a song he wrote about Elvis Presley, he said he contacted Graceland in Memphis in an effort to include an old photo of Presley in the artwork for Prairie Wind. After later being told that Elvis Presley Enterprises doesn’t want such photos used on other artists’ CD covers, Young said, “We found a picture of a pink motel with a ’57 Cadillac parked outside. I like to think he’s in there somewhere.”
For the Nashville audience, one of the concert’s highlights took place when Emmylou Harris joined him to sing, “This Old Guitar,” while playing a Martin D-28 guitar once owned by Hank Williams. Well aware that Williams often played on the Ryman stage during his days on the Grand Ole Opry, Young earlier made note of the changes he’d noticed in downtown Nashville over the past 30 years alone.
“I was wondering what it would be like for Hank Williams or one of his peers to walk out the stage door toward Tootsie’s [a legendary bar] and see the Gaylord Entertainment Center,” he said.
Fans often cringe when music legends try to introduce new material during their concerts. Thankfully, those lucky enough to score tickets to the Ryman show knew exactly what they were getting, and Prairie Wind was warmly received. However, a bigger surprise came after a brief intermission when Young returned to the stage to perform several of his most famous songs.
Beginning with “I Am a Child,” a song from his days in the band, Buffalo Springfield, Young continued with “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man,” two signature songs that made good use of Keith, who played steel guitar on the original recordings. A typically stark performance of “The Needle and the Damage Done” was followed by “Comes a Time,” which Young dedicated to fiddlers Rufus Thibodeaux and Vassar Clements, who both died during the past week. After offering the Ian Tyson classic, “Four Strong Winds,” Young closed the show with three songs from his 1992 album, Harvest Moon — “Old King” (an ode to his hound dog), the title song and “One of These Days.”
Capturing live performances on film or tape is a challenging endeavor. With Young and his backing musicians providing a flawless performance, there were no retakes whatsoever during the concert. Aside from a brief pause between songs to reload film in the cameras, it was a remarkable evening — both from a musical and technical standpoint.
Maybe the environment of the Ryman Auditorium played a role in bringing out the best in everybody, including the musicians, film crew and the audience.
“I know it’s a church,” Young said. “I think it’s a church of all kinds.”