NEIL YOUNG AND OLD: Grunge Godfather Goes Acoustic To Benefit The Bridge

Neil-Young-Crazy-Horse-Bridge-Benefit-1994

 

Happy Friday “RPM” subscribers, regulars at the bar, curious visitors, and new friends dropping by for the first time. For fans of Neil Young and Old, here’s my new review of a new unofficial Young DVD capturing his performance at his and his wife Pegi’s annual “Bridge School” benefit in 1994, with a guest appearance by Pearl Jam, which caused quite a stir back in ’94. For you aficionados of  these kinds of unofficial “collector’s item” releases, make sure to swing by the terrific and comprehensive blog/website, “Collectors Music Reviews” (www.collectorsmusicreviews.com) for much more conversation about the last 40 or 50 years of classic rock and rare concerts preserved for posterity. (Oh, and for the record, I have no idea where you can obtain some of the titles at the site, but with a little legwork, ingenuity, and Wi-Fi Web access, you’d be surprised what you can find ). Under my alter-ego pen name of “Leedslungs71”  — and if you know the multiple name/band/title/date references implied here, well, then you absolutely NEED to visit CMR — I write mostly on rare Stones, Dylan, and Neil Young (with an eye toward expanding to the Who and soon-to-be-written-and-posted review essays on the Velvet Underground and The Band; heck, there are dozens and dozens of artists I would love to write about, but time constraints, and a very charismatic three-year-old, prohibit this for the time being, at least).
Chalk up the undercover, covert-op ID to the mindset that comes with dwelling in the shadowy territories of an alternate musical universe inhabited by previously unseen sights and unheard sounds; rare concerts; primordial studio rehearsals; and intriguing outtakes that tend to start internal conversations (now, why didn’t they release THAT!!??).  As you can probably tell if you’ve read some of  my previous work here, or noticed the splattered wax of  LPs that graces the front page  borders of my story archive, I’ve indulged an almost fetishistic lifelong love and lust for the little-heard music, the works-in-progress, the making-of-history, and the iconic (but, in many cases, officially undocumented) concerts and tours of some of the most important rock-oriented artists of the last century. It’s a bit like being a junkie in a way, only with less damage to the body, but arguably just as much to the wallet, and obsessing psyche, over the long haul. Oh, and there’s no cure. But then, why would you want one? Anyway, without further ado, here’s my take on the grunge-era, “Sleeps With Angels” Neil Young. Just when you think “The Godfather” is gonna get even louder with those Marshall stacks, the old codger unplugs entirely. Ha! Same ole’ confounding, contrarian Neil.
 

Neil Young with Crazy Horse

The Bridge School Benefit Concert VIII

Shoreline Ampitheatre, Mountain View, CA., USA, 1st & 2nd October 1994

DVD (Approx. 106 min.): My Heart, Prime Of Life, Driveby, Sleeps With Angels, Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black), Train Of Love, Change Your Mind, Piece Of Crap (with Pearl Jam), Closing MC (second show only; all other tracks from Oct. 1 set list repeat, with different performances, Oct. 2)

Neil Young was enjoying a fruitful — and ferociously loud – musical renaissance by the mid-1990s. Whether accurate acknowledgment (or a catchy but dubious commercial co-opt), Young had been anointed the “Godfather of Grunge” in the wake of an onslaught of a new breed of feedback-and-flannel-draped bands with names like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Pearl Jam. These were woolly, unkempt outcasts that sprang from the woods of the Northwestern United States; stoner kids who mixed the hash pipe DNA of heavy, hairy ‘70s rock with the serrated edge of punk and the hardcore heretics who arrived as a direct repudiation to all that bong hit-fueled smoke on the water.

Neil knew this, and like a cool old hippie uncle, spiritually took under his wing this new generation of rockers who wanted to restore the danger, the volume, the heart, the authenticity, to the music. That Young’s 1994 album was titled “Sleeps Was Angels” and came out the same year Nirvana singer-songwriter Kurt Cobain killed himself was no coincidence. Cobain had even reportedly referenced a Young line, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” in his suicide note.

Young would go on to collaborate with Nirvana’s main commercial competition, the far more arena-rock minded Pearl Jam, on 1995′s “Mirror Ball” album. But before he did, he invited Pearl Jam to perform at his and wife Pegi Young’s annual “Bridge School Benefit” concert that raised funds for children who, like their own son Ben, confronted severe physical and communicative disabilities. Also performing on that 1994 bill were Indigo Girls, Mazzy Star, Pete Droge, Ministry, and Tom Petty.

All reportedly delivered diversely strong, inspired sets. It’s just too bad that, given the tenor of those grunge-centric times, nobody really remembers anybody but Neil Young and Crazy Horse jamming with Pearl Jam (or actually, vice versa). In fact, a second show had to be added to the ‘94 “Bridge School” installment to accommodate the intense demand for tickets given Pearl Jam’s appearance on the bill.

“Bridge Benefit 1994,” a simple and straightforward single-DVD set documenting most of Young’s Oct. 1 and Oct. 2 sets, marks the latest entry into the ongoing “Bridge School” collection of officially unreleased performances dating back to the benefit’s first fundraiser in 1986. Previous audio examples of the Oct. 1, ‘94 date have included “Fire On The Mountain” (Flashback) and “Frisco” (Red Phantom). Most recently, a complete soundboard recording titled “Bridge 1994 Day 2″ was released on CD by the Zion label (see CMR founder Gerard Sparaco’s review of that title elsewhere at CMR).

This All-Region, pro-shot, no-name release (at least I can’t find any label or company listed anywhere here save for a few Japanese characters evident on an accompanying sticker) features a repeat of eight of the ten songs Young and Crazy Horse played both nights. This DVD excludes the opening cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” and “The Needle and The Damage Done,” which were performed but, unfortunately, are omitted here.

With the exception of the Young staple, “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black),” which Neil delivers on both occasions with sour, unsparing conviction, all of the selections here come from the then-new “Sleeps With Angels” album (not a bad thing considering the strength of those songs; besides it has always been Neil’s modus operandi as a creative working artist to unflinchingly and, without apology, play his new stuff rather than merely flog the usual suspects and  golden oldies).

Although incomplete, this is a solid release that presents, in one nice, no-frills package, the bulk of Young’s sets on each night. It features era-appropriate front and back cover artwork (a big plus for me; although it’s a matter of personal taste and priority, a major pet peeve of mine are those titles adorned with a 1974 picture packaging a 1994 concert, or vice versa). In fact, judging from Neil’s fedora, vest, and shirt (which he apparently wore both nights), the art seems to be sourced from still photographs or screen captures from one or both of the nights. The professionally silk-screened silver disc DVD is similarly straight-ahead with a reproduction of the color cover photo. The numbered “limited edition” sticker with what looks like a mini press-pass style “Bridge Benefit” logo is a nice touch that will appeal to collectors (the specific number of copies “Bridge Benefit” is limited to, however, is not clear).

Throughout, both the picture and sound is warm, clear, and excellent, with the evenly balanced audio (in stereo, to these ears) slightly outpacing the video, which may have originally come from a high-quality, low generation VHS transfer of a professionally filmed and recorded show. As with nearly every unofficial title available from the 1990′s and before, high definition resolution as a concert film or television visual standard is still a few Neil Young tours away. But it looks and feels on a sensory level very much of its time, which gives the whole thing a kind of historical accuracy and context.

We’re talking about Neil Young here, so the real prize is, of course, the concert itself (or, rather, what we get to see and hear of it), which is as warm, clear, and excellent as the DVD presentation. It has an intimate, low-key, and communal feel from the start, opening with Neil seated at a piano, plinking out the tinny, ancient-sounding melody of “My Heart,” one of four straight numbers that replicate the album sequence of “Sleeps With Angels.” He then straps on his acoustic guitar and joins his Crazy Horse band mates – also armed with acoustics – for a laid-back, easygoing version of “Prime Of Life.”

“Driveby” is at once sobering and dreamlike: a topical tune about the senseless loss of life to gang violence, but given a tender, contemplative treatment. “Now she’s gone, like a shooting star,” Young muses with plaintive regret. “Trail of dreams, tragic trail of fire.”

An emotional resonance underpins the stark, almost “Nebraska”/Springsteen-esque rumble of  “Sleeps With Angels,” and an extended instrumental jam on “Change Your Mind” offers proof (as if anyone who’s ever attended a Neil Young concert needs it) that brevity and concision have never been Neil’s hallmarks as a musical improviser.  Earlier, by way of introducing “Train Of Love,” Neil jokes that “this one’s a lot louder than the others.” Well, no it isn’t. But it, too, is exceptionally lovely, like most of what came before and will come after. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold true for the night’s closing number, the plodding “Piece Of Crap,” which features the much hyped Pearl Jam joining in onstage but not doing a whole lot to salvage this flat-footed song from living down to its title.

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