A Tribute To Neil Young, Carnegie Hall, 2/10/11

Roots w/With the ladies from dirty projectors on bvox

One of my favorite Neil Young quotes is his comment about Pearl Jam, back when they were working on Mirror Ball together, that they knew when *not* to play. That comment never made more sense to me than it did last night at Carnegie Hall, as a parade of artists came out to pay tribute to Young Neil.

Neil’s catalog is filled with slow and plaintive numbers, and it’s not just that they’re slow, it’s the space in which he chooses not to play that is part of creating that uniquely NY feel about the song. However, it requires a lot of artistic bravery and confidence to execute that, and not everybody last night was able to do so. Glen Hansard did – but he’s also the guy who did “Hairshirt” for the R.E.M. tribute. (He’s also the only artist who stepped back from the mic to take advantage of the natural amazing Carnegie Hall acoustics). Joan Osbourne owned ‘Old Man,” which was dedicated to her father. Even Bebel Gilberto, even though it was so not my kind of thing, and watching her percussionist play things that looked like coffee mugs and bunches of lost keys was borderline silly at times, embraced the leisurely pace.

The owners of knowing when not to play last night were Cowboy Junkies, whose “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” was so outstanding that I temporarily forgot my abject hatred of Stephen Stills. It helps that they’re just a *good band*, but it was one of the few songs that I felt maintained an essential Neil-ness while still transmitting some of the personality of the band who was performing it.

Those things could also be said about J. Mascis’ brisk version of “Cortez The Killer” and the Roots’ utterly amazing, almost quasi-jazz-like version of “Down By The River”. (We had an older woman sitting next to us, who was at the show because she has a Carnegie Hall subscription, and when the song was finished, she turned to me and said, “Now, *that’s a drummer.”) There were only four members of the Roots present, which I found unfortunate, but as the SO said, “There isn’t a lot for Black Thought to do on this song.” Their interpretation was the most reworked, the most unique, the strongest attempt to maintain the spirit of the song while still making it their own, at least in my opinion.

Pete Yorn was introduced as having performed his song at his high school talent contest. He continued riffing on that line – one of the few artists to interact with the audience – and a woman in one of the balconies asked him if he’d won. He stepped back, smiled, and said “Of course I did,” before launching into Rocking In The Free World. As soon as the song was announced I was curious whether he was going to do the Neil version or the Pearl Jam version – so many people are used to the PJ version, they end up doing it when they say they’re covering RITFW – and he started with the Neil version, but with the Vedder cadence – and then took it into a more PJ-like pace after the first verse. It was great, in any event.

I know I am hardly unbiased but Patti Smith (with Jesse Smith) was one of the few artists to receive a standing ovation and in this case, it was utterly deserved. She chose a song from Prairie Wind – “It’s Just A Dream” – and while the interpretation was faithful, Patti still owned it, with the decision to go for something recent from his body of work, with the choice of this song, and the execution of it. It was arresting in the extreme.

Jakob Dylan, whom I will mention because someone will question me if I do not, was completely superfluous to his version of “Southern Man.” (I hold many grudges against Jakob Dylan, which are not necessary to air here.) Julianne Hatfield and Evan Dando – who I did not even know were on the bill until I saw their name in the program shortly before they came onstage – were not superfluous to their version of “Cinnamon Girl,” which they played the bejeezus out of, even if a healthy portion of the audience did not know who they were, and people on either side of me were doing way too much “OMG A GIRL PLAYING GUITAR GOOD” type of murmuring.

The house band – which was, as always, fabulous, not least of all was the presence of Larry Campbell – returned at the end of the night to perform that cheerful ditty known as “Ohio.” This was probably the song that was reserved by Michael Dorff, the show’s organizer, in case the honoree showed up. (Patti shattered that illusion for the audience members still holding out hope against hope when she came out and shared with us that she knew his spirit was with us.)

The grand finale song was “Hey Hey My My,” and the problem with the finale is always that many of the artists who are participating are not necessarily fans of the artist who is being paid tribute to, and so they aren’t familiar with the song being performed. This was a huge problem at last year’s Who tribute, where no one knew the words to “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Patti knew the words, Glen Hansard knew the words, Bettye Lavette took a verse with a mixed interpretation of success, I think someone in the back just turned the guitars up louder.

The Michael Dorff-organized tributes (which raise money for programs bringing music education to public schools) are always enjoyable and compelling in varying degrees. Tonight was better than the Who tribute in terms of stronger individual performances mixed with a handful of exceptional ones. I always find these shows worth my time and money and do appreciate the venue. However, I still remain frustrated that the audience energy is always centered around the cheap seats way up top, and the fact that each artist needs to be introduced with the name of the song they will be performing – especially this year, when the setlist was in the program (a first), it’s just a symptom of modern society that seems out of place at this type of evening and ruins a portion of the fun of the night for me personally, that few seconds of, “Oh wow, they’re doing THIS?!” which is, to me, one of the reasons you go to a tribute evening.

But these are minor points. I will be here next year. On my wish list? Mr. Bowie and Messrs. Jagger and Richards.