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Waging Heavy Neil

I was at Oskar Blues in Lyons the other night, and an acoustic quartet performed an exquisite version of “Harvest,” introduced by the singer asking, more than once, “what does this song mean?”

I felt a little like that after finishing Waging Heavy Peace (Blue Rider Press), a generous, rambling slog through the peculiar brain of Neil Young, filmmaker, model train guru, hater of mp3 sound, lover of old Cadillacs, and, oh, yeah, one of the foremost songwriters and singers of his (my) generation, and the author of “Harvest,” which he doesn’t explain.

I have read a lot about Young and listened to countless hours of his music, and, back in the rockcritter days, alternately praised and thrashed him over the years. (Full disclosure: I’m a big enough fan that I once wrote a column “The 15 Worst Songs Neil Young Ever Wrote.” And here are a couple of recent reviews of Denver shows, at Wells Fargo Arena in 2007 and Magness Arena in 2009.)

But Waging Heavy Peace just tickled the shit out of me, all five hundred often repetitive, desultory pages. Young is obsessive, impatient, curious, difficult and impulsive, often at the same time. He ambles through his life like a locomotive through one of his massive, museum-quality toy train layouts on his California ranch. He writes with great passion of trying to gain perfection in the way model trains slow as they climb hills, of the power of sound and intricacies of his electric guitars and amplifiers, of the biomass fuel that will allow all those old Cadillacs we’ll be driving around in to get 100 miles to the gallon or his Pono sound system that he argues will give digital music the same power as analog vinyl album once did. And yeah, he shares a few stories about the music he made that all of us carry in our DNA by now.

Given the meandering style and day-to-day detail in the book, I’m guessing there was no editing involved. If you’re expecting a chronological dissertation or explantion of his songs, you might be disappointed. “If you are having trouble reading this,” he even warns at one point, “give it to someone else.”

His arguments about sound quality and how digital files fail listeners are persuasive, even if their frequency makes them begin to sound like commercials. But this issue particularly bothers Young. “I can’t go anywhere without the annoying sound of mp3s or some other source of bad sound grating on my nerves and affecting my conversations,” he writes. “I will not rest until the impact has been made and Puretone (later Pono) or something like it is available worldwide to those who love music.”

The title even refers to his battle against bad sound quality. When someone asked him if he was waging war on Apple, he said no, but he was waging heavy peace.

In a sense, Young’s is testament to the notion of being able to control your own life. All of us want to do that, but few have the option to actually make it happen. “I will use my own money when I shouldn’t because I hate waiting,” he writes. “That may be why I spent so much money and built so many things. I just like to do it myself. I hate waiting for approval, because I have my own Approve-o-Meter. It works like a charm.”

But what I really admire about Young is his sense of nostalgia, his respect for the past and his absolute devotion to his family, his collaborators, his friends, and his infatuation with trying to make things better for himself and others. He writes warmly and openly about long-time collaborators he has lost along the way, especially Danny Whitten, Jack Nitzsche, Ben Keith and David Briggs. I knew of his model-train obsession and association with Lionel, but his stories of building a transformer so that his son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, could run a model train are more moving than any of the revelations about the music.

“I accept that I cannot have every dream come true at once. Life is too shoet for that,” he writes.

That doesn’t mean he won’t stop trying.

March 6, 2013   No Comments

Seeing God in Municipal Auditorium

This photo was taken from the Folly Theater building at 12th and Central, where I worked on a renovation project 1977-79. (KC Public Library)

I was forwarded the Scotty Moore website (Moore was the guitarist for Elvis Presley), which included a page with information about Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. Presley and Moore played there in May 1956, and the page includes a wealth of post cards, photos and information about the building itself. (Thanks to Mike Webber for the forward.)

Reading it brought back a flood of memories on this Labor Day. Built in 1934 as part of a ten-year plan to bring the city up-to-date, Municipal Auditorium, by the time I first began showing up, was only 20 years old. Its art-deco style, subtle lighting and quiet elegance really impressed me, and I loved going there. Some of the other buildings created at this time, including the Jackson County Court House, City Hall and the Power and Light building, are equally mysterious and enigmatic. Another thing I liked about the Auditorium was that it wasn’t built on a flat surface. Standing at Wyandotte and 14th Street, it looked like it had been built into a hill to the north. You couldn’t tell from the inside, but you certainly could from the outside.

I can’t remember the first time I was there, but it was probably a large church event. I remember being in the Main Arena, which seated 10,000, and our local Lutheran choir joined with dozens of others to raise our voices to heaven – it was incredible.

As a child, I also went there for the special Philharmonic concerts for kids in the more intimate Music Hall. I really loved these. It’s where I found out that a hymn I knew as “What Child is This?” was based on the traditional English song “Greensleeves.” The melody haunts me to this day. Another time the power went off during the performance, and the Phil, undaunted, just kept on playing, something I wouldn’t see again until Joe King Carrasco and the Crowns pulled the same trick at Parody Hall in the early 1980s.

Billie and I caught a couple of Barnum & Bailey shows there, before we stopped doing the circus-as-entertainment thing. The arena was large enough (the blog says it was 92 feet floor to ceiling) to hold even the gigantic tank that a horse jumped into during the finale of one show, or the guy shot out of a cannon at another one as well as the many trapeze and high-wire acts that dazzled us.

The arena has an interesting ceiling lighting arrangement. This was the late 1950s, when nuclear paranoia was very real. When the sermons or services would fade into the background, I would stare up and imagine people above the ceiling, watching us from their perch. You know, the people who run the world only we don’t know it. And this was before psychedelics.

The interior of the Auditorium is drop-dead gorgeous. (KC Public Library)

The Moore site includes a photo of a concert by Louis Armstrong Nov. 7, 1964, that I attended. I had escaped Kansas City to attend St. Paul’s Lutheran High School down the new I-70 in Concordia, Mo. Our class took a field trip to Kansas City that Saturday, and we somehow got free tickets at a Katz drug store downtown. Sitting high behind the stage, we watched the musicians in their dressing rooms (which were just partitions) smoking and laughing in between songs. I thought they were smoking cigarettes at the time, but after learning more about Armstrong, I’m sure it was probably something else.

“Hello Dolly” had made #1 in March, and he sang it three times that night, something I wouldn’t see again until almost 12 years later, when Willie Nelson did “On the Road Again” three times July 23, 1976, in the Arena with Tompall Glaser and the Flying Burrito Brothers as opening acts.

Other memorable concerts there included a special British Invasion reunion in July 1973, with the original Herman’s Hermits line-up as headliners with the Searchers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Gerry & the Pacemakers and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. I remember they looked so old. Good acid. Good time, and I thought again about the people who control us all above the ceiling.

Blue Oyster Cult did a great show in January of 1978, with Black Oak and a third act, Millionaire at Midnight, who turned me in the direction of the burgeoning local music scene. I was forced to review Foghat/Bachman-Turner with Judas Priest opening. Ugh. The first time I saw Jethro Tull there, people were celebrating Independence Day by throwing fireworks. The second time, when I gave my ticket to be seated, I was told that the seats “didn’t exist anymore.” He wasn’t kidding; all the seats were pushed back and it was an early mosh pit out in front of the stage.

Neil Young brought his Time Fades Away tour to the Arena with Linda Ronstadt in 1974. Riverrock and Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band opened for Jerry Lee Lewis in the Arena on May 4, 1979. When he asked rhetorically at one point, “who’ll play this old piano when I’m gone,” a woman right behind us stood up and said, “Nobody, killer, nobody but you.”

The last time I was there was in the early 1980s to see the Kinks. Beginning in 1974, they had became an annual attraction at Memorial Hall and the Uptown Theatre. But that particular time they almost sold out the Arena, and I saw a younger generation, the children of the Kinks’ original fans, singing along with every song. Absolutely wonderful.

They were with Arista at the time, and I was friendly with the rep, who was traveling with the band. After the show, in the dressing room, Ray said, “I want to meet the obituary editor and music critic,” and we talked for a couple of minutes. I always hoped he would write a song about the obituary editor who wrote about rock and roll. So far, he hasn’t.

September 3, 2012   No Comments

Neil Young Peels the Paint in Denver

Neil Young working the crowd Monday night at Magness Arena.

Neil Young working the crowd Monday night at Magness Arena.

It was a big Monday night for Neil Young electric guitar fans. Foregoing the acoustic set that he played here in 2007, Young blasted his way through a twenty-one-song list that ended with an blistering encore of “All Along the Watchtower” at Magness Arena.

The band seemed to be the same one he brought to the Wells Fargo Theater in Denver on Nov. 5, 2007, which includes core Young sidemen bassist Rick Rosas, guitarist Ben Keith and drummer Ralph Molina, with his wife Peggi Young and another vocalist and sometime guitarist. That night he divided the show into an acoustic and an electric set, but on this tour he stuck mostly with the latter, only strapping on the acoustic for a few songs to break up the high energy and intensity.

It is testament to his sizable repertoire that he only repeated one song, “Cinnamon Girl,” from the Wells Fargo date I saw a year and a half ago.

It was a long night. Everest came on at seven and played a thirty-five minute set. I had never heard of this Canadian band, but they played well, although the sound was a little muddy for their sometimes acoustic-based music.

The Neville Brothers were next, and for those of us not able to attend Jazzfest (this weekend is the last, with the Nevilles and Young both scheduled there for Sunday), they pumped forty-five minutes of heady New Orleans funk into the hall, with all the favorites – “Hey Pocky Way,” “Caravan,” “Fiyo on the Bayo,” “Fever” — and more. I haven’t seen the Nevilles in at least fifteen years, and their set didn’t seem to have changed too much, but their music is as rich, vibrant and deep as it comes, and they just knocked me out.

Young, dressed in tennis shoes, jeans and a white sports coat, opened strongly with “Love and Only Love,” loud and brash, which set the pace for the rest of the night. The songs from his current album, Fork in the Road, were sprinkled in among the classics and kept the intensity if not quite the impact of some of the older material. For me, only the last two, “Get Behind the Wheel” and “Just Singing a Song Won’t Change the World,” which closed down the regular set, really caught my ear, especially the latter.

Young always manages to surprise even the most jaded concertgoer. Early on he sat down at the piano and lit a fire beneath “Are You Ready For the Country,” and I found myself screaming “because it’s time to go.” He followed that with “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” with all the high harmonies intact. I don’t remember seeing him do this one in concert very often, if ever. “Pocahontas” got the crunch effect, with Young screaming out “Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me” as the song wound down.

But my own favorite section came near the end when he played a mini-set from Tonight’s the Night. After a version of “Heart of Gold” (never a personal favorite) that made me a believer again, he pulled out “Albuquerque,” “Speakin’ Out” and “Tonight’s the Night” itself.

I have long been fascinated by Young’s stage show, and we were sitting where we had a great view of the backstage area. Young is fastidious about his presentation, whether having a roadie go around wiping down each microphone just before the set began to another fellow who walks up between songs and changes out the hand-written lyric sheets.

As we watched guitar tech Larry Cragg set up Young’s onstage rig, Rob Ober, a good friend and guitar enthusiast who accompanied me, said there is a lot of interest in Young’s sound and instruments, and if you type “Neil Young sound” into a search engine, you’ll find a host of sites like this one dedicated to the Rig.

He always employs some kind of onstage shtick, and there was a painter positioned behind the band who created several interesting canvases during the set. For his environmental hymn, “Mother Earth,” Young walked up some steps at the back of the stage to an old, worn pipe organ, which added drama and gave the song the feel of an old evangelical revival.

All in all, it was a nice surprise, one we hadn’t planned. We got free tickets for the show online Monday afternoon when Magness Arena or Young apparently decided to paper the house, which wasn’t a sell-out, by giving away tickets near showtime. Total cost for the two tickets was about seven dollars, which paid for allowing me to print them on my computer. Other people in our section got their tickets the same way. Not sure who to thank for that, but hey, thanks anyway.

Neil Young
The Neville Brothers
Magness Arena
Denver, Colorado
Monday April 27, 2009

1. Love And Only Love
2. Fuel Line
3. Are You Ready For The Country?
4. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
5. When Worlds Collide
6. Pocahontas
7. Hit The Road
8. Change Your Mind (Everest – background vocals)
9. Cinnamon Girl
10. Mother Earth
11. The Needle And The Damage Done
12. Light A Candle
13. Goin’ Back
14. Heart Of Gold
15. Albuquerque
16. Speakin’ Out
17. Tonight’s The Night
18. Down By The River
19. Get Behind The Wheel
20. Just Singing A Song


21. All Along The Watchtower

April 28, 2009   No Comments

Neil Being Neil: When Young Comes to Denver

Neil Young w/ Rick Rosas, Ben Keith, Ralph Molina, Anthony Crawford & Pegi Young
Wells Fargo Theater
Denver, CO 80305
Nov. 5, 2007

Acoustic Set: From Hank To Hendrix / Ambulance Blues / Sad Movies / A Man Needs A Maid / No One Seems To Know / Harvest / After The Gold Rush / Mellow My Mind / Love Art Blues / Love Is A Rose / Heart Of Gold

Electric Set: The Loner / Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere / Dirty Old Man / Spirit Road / Bad Fog Of Loneliness / Winterlong / Oh, Lonesome Me / The Believer / No Hidden Path // Cinnamon Girl / Like A Hurricane

Mark Brown said it right in his review in The Rocky Mountain News: this was more a night for hard-core fans than newbies or the uninitiated.

The show, like many Young performances over the years, was divided into an acoustic and (mostly) electric set; the first was completely solo, the second employed a stripped-down band that included longtime stringman Ben Keith, Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Rick Rojas.

During the acoustic set, he wandered around the stage between various keyboards and guitars. If there were a period that Young seemed to be invoking, it was the 1970s. After opening with the relatively recent “From Hank to Hendrix” (1992), he played “Ambulance Blues,” “A Man Needs a Maid,” “Harvest,” “Love is a Rose,” “After the Gold Rush,” “Heart of Gold,” “Mellow My Mind” and the oft-bootlegged “Love Art Blues,” all songs from the period. To put a finer point on it, he added “Sad Movies” apparently written back then but rarely or not performed ‘til now.

Name anybody with a more effective finger-picking style or onstage acoustic sound than Young. For the rarely played “Ambulance Blues,” he made his antique acoustic Martin guitar wheeze and groan like an elderly man after walking up a long flight of stairs. It’s like the guitar is alive, a breathing part of the song. He picked up a banjo for the biggest surprise of the night. I expected to hear “For the Turnstiles,” the only Young song I know in which the banjo is dominant. Instead he reinvented the boozy “Mellow My Mind” as a eccentric bluegrass number.

The only real clunker was “A Man Needs a Maid,” which included one section that he played on piano and the other on organ. The organ overwhelmed the piano, and Young was straining for the high notes, which made it all a bit screechy on this particular night.

Watching him play the (mostly) electric set was as much fun as it always is. Dressed in a loosely fitting suit, he looked like a staggering marionette, careening around the stage like the guitar was leading him. Opening the set was “The Loner,” the first electric Neil song I ever heard and the best moment of the night here, with Ben Keith adding slide guitar flourishes that danced beneath Young’s stuttering lead outbursts.

During this set, he added the non-descript “Bad Fog of Loneliness,” a surprising, rocking “Winterlong” and his slowly grinding cover of “Lonesome Me,” all again from that mid-70s period. There were times when the band didn’t seem in sync. That isn’t necessarily a problem with a Young set – it’s what often makes him and Crazy Horse worth watching — but Ben Keith looked to the side of the stage in exasperation a couple of times.

Except for the rollicking “Dirty Old Man,” the new Chrome Dreams songs, “Spirit Road,” “The Believer” and the finale, a long, into-the-wild version of “No Hidden Path,” seemed slight. Encores were perfunctory: short takes of “Cinnamon Girl” and “Like a Hurricane.” I have seen times when Young seemed locked in mortal combat with his guitar. I didn’t feel that tonight.

The only gimmick for this downscaled show was an easel placed stage left upon which a painter exchanged paintings that represented the songs the band was playing throughout the electric set. He seemed to be working very hard just to keep up. Just a guess, but I’ll bet the second night in Denver went more smoothly.

November 7, 2007   3 Comments

Stephen Stills: Just Roll Tape

The story is almost too good to be true. On April 26, 1968, Stephen Stills, 23 years old and just two weeks away from Buffalo Springfield’s final concert, slipped a couple thousand dollars to an engineer after a recording session with then-girlfriend Judy Collins and proceeded to run off a half-hour set list of new material. Forty years later, the tape shows up and winds up in the hands of Graham Nash.

But that’s basically the tale behind Just Roll Tape (Rhino Records): 12 songs, apparently released in the order in which they were recorded, with a later, seven-minute demo of “Treetop Flyer” added so it wouldn’t be the shortest CD ever.

Short though it might be, for Stills’ watchers, Just Roll Tape offers a nascent glimpse into his creative process at the beginning of a period of peak creativity that culminated in CSN&(sometimes)Y and his early solo records.

Three of the songs here – “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes,” “Helplessly Hoping” and “Wooden Ships” – would appear in finished form 13 months later on Crosby, Stills and Nash, the epochal album that made them huge stars and opened up the concept of country/rock to a mass audience for the first time.

“Black Queen,” which I heard on CSN&Y’s debut tour in the fall of 1969, shows up on record for the first time on Stills’ 1970 solo debut. Both “Change Partners” and “Know You Got to Run” don’t appear officially until 1971’s Stephen Stills 2, and “So Begins the Task,” another CSN live highlight, would wait for 1972’s Manassas. (Judy Collins would record “So Begins the Task” in 1973 for her True Stories and Other Dreams. )

I’m kind of surprised that “All I Know is What You Tell Me” didn’t see the light of day until now. “The Doctor Will See You Now” and “Bumblebee (Do You Need a Place to Hide?)” are both nice examples of Still’s unique blues stylings that apparently weren’t taken up in the ensemble process.

Looking over this sheaf of potential gold, with at least six career songs, it suggests that Stills knew what he had and was willing to wait to provide them, at least on record, at his own whims. It helped that there were other songwriters in his band.

If you argue that Stills has always better in group settings than as a solo artist, there is potent ammunition here. It’s obvious that “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes,” “Helplessly Hoping” and “Wooden Ships” are simply awaiting the glorious additions of David Crosby and Graham Nash.

It’s easy to forget how influential Crosby, Stills and Nash was at the time of its release. Although it was hardly a new concept, in the rock world it was novel to see members of previously influential groups forming a “supergroup” – or creating such a strong record.

Two of the songs on that album were especially revolutionary, and hearing these versions of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Wooden Ships” at this embryonic stage is kind of like hearing the original recording of the Beatles equally influential “Strawberry Fields Forever” and then hearing its evolution into the single version.

You can hear the three distinct parts that Stills stitched together to form “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” He adjusts the tuning between the first and second sections, and ends it with the penultimate line in the final version, “be my lady,” just before the miraculous “do-do-do-do-do” harmonies that magically end the recorded single.

Even more embryonic is the post-apocalyptic poem, “Wooden Ships.” Within a year and a half of this recording, two major groups, CS&N and Jefferson Airplane, would release very different versions of “Wooden Ships.” (I loved them both, though I preferred the CSN version). Like everything on this disc, all the pieces are here; they just haven’t been segued together.

All in all, if Crosby, Stills and Nash was an important musical signpost on the musical road of life, Just Roll Tape should tickle the hell out of you.

September 4, 2007   No Comments