Neil Young proves there's still life in rock
by Seth Rogovoy

(AMHERST, Mass., March 22, 2004) – “Be the rain” was the final chant that brought down the house at the end of “Greendale,” Neil Young’s 90-minute “rock ‘n’ roll novel” dramatized on stage at the Mullins Center on Sunday night.

“Greendale” began life as a thematic concept album released last year -- a song-cycle whose 10 songs and liner notes portray a loosely plotted drama about the aptly-named Green family and what happens to them and their town when the ills of our time seemingly intrude on their peaceful existence all within a matter of a few weeks.

Young didn’t stop with the CD, however. “Greendale” is also a film directed by Young (coming to the Triplex in Great Barrington next month). But perhaps its greatest realization has been in the charmingly innocent, theatrical stage show Young has been touring for nearly a year, a tour that came to a rousing conclusion on Sunday night with a spellbinding run-through of the entire “Greendale” program, followed by an extended encore of obscure and classic Neil Young oldies.

Back by Crazy Horse, his power trio of long standing, Young narrated the story of “Greendale” both in song and in between (think Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” on steroids). During the songs, actors and dancers played out the action around him on a series of stage sets, including a front porch, a jail cell, and an all-purpose rear stage that served as a highway, a fishing dock, a bar, and a school. Behind all the action, a movie screen displayed scenes that were taking place on stage as well as scenes from the movie alternating with slides.

Those who were looking for tidy coherence in the songs, stories and dramatic action were disappointed. But through the sketches of plot and character and narrative that Young, in terrific voice, ingeniously wove through his songs – songs that often expressed multiple points of view, much like a novel – themes emerged. These were for the most part unsurprising themes – war is bad; love is good; corporate homogenization is destructive of our small-town origins; the earth is ours to protect, not to destroy, etc. In other words, the whole Sixties-derived, hippie/humanist agenda. Not for nothing is this thinly veiled political polemic called “Greendale” and the main family the “Greens.”

But while Young pointed fingers at some obvious enemies – the Clear Channel entertainment conglomerate, John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act – he didn’t go so far as to endorse Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich for president. Rather, he invoked timeworn, loveable clichés (“Save Alaska! Let the caribou stay!”), countercultural heroes (both John Lennon and Bob Dylan were quoted, the latter extensively), and his own muscular, country-tinged, organic garage rock to put across his story. And he wasn’t averse to irony, either: “Seems like that guy singin’ this song been doin’ it for a long time,” he had one character say of the narrator/singer.

If it all hadn’t been handled with such self-conscious innocence and seat-of-the-pants choreography – this was no slick, contemporary stage production – some of the goofier sentiments might have seemed stale or even sour. Instead, when the ensemble all came out to contribute to the rousing closing anthem, “Be the Rain,” what could have been an embarrassingly bad echo of the musical “Hair” offered a sincere jolt of optimism in a depressing time, rejuvenating a nearly forgotten belief in rock’s power to effect social change. That Young then added a postscript to the drama with a set of scorching anthems including “Powderfinger,” “Mansion on a Hill,” “Love and Only Love” and “Rockin’ in the Free World,” served as a pitch- perfect coda.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 24, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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