The Young and the Restful

Washington City Paper | February 17, 2006
After the commercial success of the sappy Harvest, Neil Young could have been Sweet Baby Neil for the rest of his career. Instead, he made albums so willfully weird that he was once sued by his record label for not being sufficiently Neil Young–ish. Yet Harvest’s country-folkie-with-strings mode remains Young’s artistic safe haven, to which he’s returned for such albums as 1985’s Old Ways, 1992’s Harvest Moon, and last year’s Prairie Wind. The last of those is alleged to be particularly profound because it marks many personal milestones: As the album was being written or recorded, Young’s father died, his daughter turned 21, and he underwent two surgeries to repair a brain aneurysm. So when Young decided to perform two concerts for the cameras at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium shortly before the album was released, the event became a Gail Sheehy sort of moment, complete with wife Pegi Young and such longtime collaborators and Nashville icons as Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, and Emmylou Harris. (To keep things from being as white as prairie snow, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers add a few “oooh”s.) The smartest move was inviting Jonathan Demme to direct, perhaps because Young’s cinematic alter ego, Bernard Shakey, was feeling a little too rickety. Demme does as well by Young as he did by Talking Heads (Stop Making Sense) and Robyn Hitchcock (Storefront Hitchcock), rendering the performances with elegance, intimacy, and a splendid lack of gimmickry. With a shifting cast of musicians, Young performs all but one song from Prairie Wind and then a bunch of earnest older tunes—including Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” and, of course, the title number—that fit neatly with the new stuff. What never arrives is the moment when Young straps on an electric guitar and shreds his simplistic, sentimental lyrics. The movie will charm anyone who can accept such lines as “See the bluebird fly easy as a dream,” “Those were the good old family times,” and—seriously!—“Amber waves of grain bow in the prairie wind” in the spirit in which they were offered. But those who prefer Young with ramshackle guitar, ornery feedback, and Crazy Horse may briefly consider a lawsuit.

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