Neil Young completes his “Greendale” trilogy

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 7, 2004) -- When Neil Young’s album “Greendale” was released last summer, it was clearly an ambitious piece of work – part concept album, part rock opera for one voice, part rock ‘n’ roll novel. All the songs were interrelated, telling a winding if at times incomprehensible story about the inhabitants of the fictional town of Greendale, specifically the stories of three generations of the town’s family named Green.

When Young took these songs out on tour, he didn’t just drop them into a set list. As seen last month at the Mullins Center in Amherst, Young presented a fully-staged version of the album, with actors, dancers and sets providing a backdrop for the story, which Young performed straight through from beginning to end.

It turns out that there is a third element in what now appears to be a very ambitious and mostly successful multimedia rock trilogy. On Friday, “Greendale,” the film, opens at the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington, where it will play once a night through next Thursday, April 15. The film, like the concert, relies entirely on Young’s songs to tell the story. Actors in the film occasionally mouth the words that Young sings on the soundtrack – parts of the songs are written in dialogue. It sounds weird, but the technique isn’t overused, and a viewer quickly grows accustomed to it.

The film may be the most successful part of the trilogy -- although having seen and heard all three parts, it’s hard to say how any one of them works in isolation. Backed by his electric rock group, Crazy Horse, Young sings clearly throughout, and his vocals are mixed in front of his classic-style, grungy guitar-rock epics, making it easy to follow the story. The movie has a low-budget, homemade feel – supposedly it was filmed with an underwater camera – and most of the actors are amateurs (don’t blink or you’ll miss a funny cameo by Young himself).

It’s surprising, given how these efforts often get out of hand, how little Young, who wrote and directed the film, indulges himself. He sticks to the task, which was basically to illustrate the songs and the overarching narrative. He does it surprisingly well, with a literalness bred of innocence and no small degree of beauty and humor -- at one point, a character mouths the words, “That guy who just keeps singin’/Can’t somebody shut him up?/I don’t know for the life of me/Where he comes up with this stuff.”

“Greendale” is clearly a movie that will appeal to hardcore Neil Young fans, but also to casual fans of rock music and rock movies like Bob Dylan’s “Renaldo and Clara” and “Masked and Anonymous” and Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels.” It’s a lot more than a full-length music video, as some have dismissed it, if not a conventional feature film. Rather, it’s an experimental movie with a sincere point of view – a meditation on contemporary politics, the media, the corporate state, and the environment, which Young neatly ties together through the story concerning the impulsive killing of a police officer and the radicalization of a high-school cheerleader. As such, it would make great viewing for almost any thoughtful high school student, as well as anyone who longs for the spirit of the Sixties counterculture – except for images of CNN, John Ashcroft, Tom Ridge and the war in Iraq flashed at times, this is a film that looks and sounds like it could have been made in 1969. Plus, how many movies do you tap your toes to from beginning to end?

A blues weekend

Blues fans are in luck this weekend. It will be a bluesy night at the Dream Away Lodge in Becket on Friday at 8:30 with a triple-bill of regional acoustic blues talent featuring Robin O’Herin, Mike Erkkinen, Steve Bridges. On Saturday night, the electric, eclectic Pioneer Valley blues-rock diva Susan Angeletti makes her debut at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington, on a bill also featuring the trio Blue Illusion.

Jazz-noir cabaret

With the aid of her trio, jazz vocalist Teri Roiger will help transform the Lenox Club into a noir-jazz-style cabaret, the “Blue Room,” on Saturday night at 8. A fund-raiser for IS183 Art School of the Berkshires, the event will feature Roiger’s Billie Holiday- and Thelonious Monk-inspired vocals, a funky setting designed by Blue Q of Pittsfield, and blue-themed drinks, desserts and coffees. Joining Roiger are pianist Pat McKearn, bassist John Menegon and drummer Tani Tabbal.

The Mammals rock

On Saturday night at 7, the Mammals celebrate the release of their newest and by far their best CD yet at the Iron Horse in Northampton. “Rock that Babe” (Signature Sounds) features the group’s trademark blend of old-time folk with new-time energy. The album kicks off with a hard-swinging version of “Fall On My Knees” featuring folk-punk singing by Ruth Ungar, who also swings on the jazzy, bluegrass-meets-disco tune, “Bad Shoes Blues.” Highlights also include Michael Merenda’s musically understated but lyrically trenchant contemporary protest song, “The Bush Boys,” and Tao Rodriguez’s haunting version of Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan,” familiar to fans of the “Buena Vista Social Club.” The trio’s sound is filled out on the new CD by bassist Pierce Woodward and drummer/keyboardist Ken Mauri.

More on record industry woes

A few weeks ago a column in this space rebutting the record industry’s claims that poor sales are due to file sharing provoked a flood of reader responses. Earlier this week, the New York Times ran an article on the same topic, “A Heretical View of File Sharing,” reporting on a new study by two economists that basically agrees with the column’s premise, saying that Internet downloads have “zero” effect on album sales. Rather, says the article, the decline in sales of recorded music can be attributed to a variety of circumstances, including a bad economy, fewer releases, and cookie-cutter radio playlists.

[Dream Away Lodge, 623-8725; Triplex, 528-8885; Club Helsinki, 528-3394; IS183, 298-5252; Iron Horse, 586-8686.]

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 9, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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