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Neil Young Rocks Australia With 'Greendale'

Sydney, Australia — An eagle is coming in to land, free and a little frightening in glorious Cinemascope. Neil Young looks up at this bird as he moves back through a crowd of what, maybe a hundred people?, on stage now (it's the finale to the night) — moving towards it like a hunter, slinging his guitar into place and hunching over intimately, holding every note as the great bird slowly lands, bringing his own sonic energy to bear on this creature's descent and a huge, huge show that's coming on down as a well. What a trip it's been.

So it is, on November 21 at the Entertainment Centre, we find ourselves leaving Greendale, Neil Young's mixed-up, rocking and angry-loving picture of American life.

Recreating the Greendale CD on stage from start to finish, Young uses film and video footage along with a core group of regular actors and numerous extras picked up in each city he plays, all crowded onto a set he designed to evoke the drama of a small town and those who inhabit it.

Center stage is the man himself, playing that instantly recognizable guitar (the spine Kurt Cobain hewed so closely to as a musician, bonding grunge to Hendrix and country via Young's ragged glory), breathing life into everyone through his songs as actors mouth the words and actions, their mimicry shone up on the big screen, a Twilight Zone broadcast if ever there was one.

In a way it does feel like Young stumbled into his own imaginary town and couldn't find an easy way out. Some lost place where the homespun wisdoms and humor of Mark Twain and the madness of Hunter S. Thompson are familiars, along with that blood-on-the-ground quality that has always infused Young's music with a submerged note of shamanistic mourning for Native America and something like the passing of time itself.

Here in Greendale we meet such characters as Grandpa, an extension of Neil Young's irascible side, a man from a time when people "just wore what they had on." Grandpa ends up dying of a heart attack — defending his "freedom of silence" — while a media orgy swims around him seeking out vox-pops ("I can't talk that fast") about his grandson, Jed, who shoots and kills a cop when he's caught running drugs on the edge of town.

We witness the local cop Carmichael get a fast bullet from Jed in an earlier scene, and are told that his death is felt "like a hole in the side" of everyone on the force. For a whole year "no one parks in his space." But as Young shows, even an apparently noble guy like Carmichael has his secrets, including a woman called Lenore that Jed also seems to know intimately (not that we ever unearth quite what that secret is).

Some beautiful illustrated slides, like the picture of Carmichael's cop car making its astral way to heaven, accentuate an art primitive feel of what is actually a complex theatrical effort — large wooden cut-out cars paced against flowing super-8 landscapes, a farmhouse and a local jail, the way everything sprawls like some dark, counter-culturally driven rock eisteddfod.

Scenes and characters duck and weave among the songs as Young establishes a dense moral fable about life in a small American town, its admirable righteousness and its shadows, and how a larger world intrudes upon it: from rapacious media (Clear Channel is one of Young's most hated targets: "It ain't an honor to be on TV and it ain't a duty either") to a war-craving culture and the equally craven big business interests that stir it towards mania.

Vietnam and Iraq, confused nationalism, drugs and political cynicism are balanced against titanic idealism, messages of love and peace and environmentalism that are so straight from the heart they could only be braved by a '60s man like Young.

Certainly that swooping eagle was a powerful image among the many in Greendale who leaned towards the higher, mystic nationalism he adheres to, as uncomfortable as that can feel for an audience used to anti-American platitudes. Though Canadian born, Young still believes in something grand about the U.S.A., and in his own role as a critical artist is able to simultaneously celebrate and protest the nature of his culture.

At first, however, the breadth of the show seemed to distract from the basic might and frayed, do-wop grunt of Crazy Horse, one of the best three-piece rock bands on the planet, and with Neil Young's axe, a beast to be truly reckoned with. After so much controlled theatricality during "Greendale," a second, 40-minute set of free-riffing "hits" including "Hey Hey, My My" (it came at us and it ran over us), "All Along the Watchtower" (Hendrix reloaded), a demented "Sedan Delivery" (was Young playing that song or pulling it apart by the guts?), and "Rockin' in the Free World" (fuck) tore the roof off. It was like having a big car leave the side roads and hit the highway. A second encore of "Cinnamon Girl" and an almost comically friendly "Roll Another Number (For the Road)" were Young and the band's freewheeling goodbye.

Thoughts for me, though, kept returning to "Greendale": the speechless beauty of "Bandit," the only acoustic moment, with that weird loose string off-noting and shining the beauty of the rest of it upon us; the scene where a bar band called The Imitators played immediately behind Crazy Horse like some kick-ass ghost from their younger days during the song "Sun Green" (an ode to an ex-cheerleading, revolutionary eco-hippie who helped take us over the top in the show — move over Patty Hearst!); and finally that crowd on stage below the eagle, waving flags, calling out to us to "save the planet for another day." It was wild. And free. And I'm not even close to telling you the way it was. Some places are just like that, I guess. — Mark Mordue [Monday, December 15, 2003]

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