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Review: Neil Tribute at Carnegie Hall (10.Feb.11)

Neil Young tribute: Patti Smith, Joan Osborne, Pete Yorn, The Roots honor singer at Carnegie Hall

Friday, February 11th 2011, 12:16 PM

Great songs work like Rorschach Tests. Creative-types can see anything they want in them. And the pieces reveal just as much about the viewer as they do about the artist.

By that measure, Neil Young’s songs provide the widest possible range of interpretations. That made him a perfect subject for the Thursday night’s all-star tribute show curated by Michael Dorf, of City Winery and the Knitting Factory fame.

The show, which took place as many in Dorf’s series have, at Carnegie Hall, featured a familiar range of New York-centric interpreters, from Patti Smith, Bettye LaVette, and Joan Osborne to Evan Dando, Pete Yorn, and The Roots. Yet, it also found room in its 22 star line-up for artists like the U.K.’s Ben Ottewell (of the band Gomez), Ireland’s Glen Hansard (of the movie “Once”) and Brazil’s Bebel Gilberto.

For nearly a decade, Dorf has produced these shows, which benefit a number of music education programs. Past subjects have included Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Springsteen, The Who and Simon & Garfunkel.

While Young presents a particularly wide catalogue of material to choose from, Thursday’s interpreters stressed early Neil. All but five pieces were recorded between 1968 and ’78. Also, the stars greatly favored Young’s singer-songwriter mode over his freak-out guitar hero guise with Crazy Horse.

The show presented its time bias early. All three of the opening songs came from 1972’s “Harvest,” Young’s most commercially-potent work. While Joe Purdy and Joan Osborne performed “Out on The Weekend” and “Old Man” faithfully (and uninterestingly) Bettye LaVette brought a profound part of herself to “Heart of Gold.”  To be fair, there’s a bit of a cheat to that. LaVette first recorded the song back in ’72.

As is her wont, she turned the song from a folk piece into a gospel/soul barn-burner. Leaning into the chorus, she greatly expanded the range of the vocal, added a southern funky piano, and, together, made this once meditative song a desperate cri de coeur.

Few singers performed as radical a rethink, though even some minor fiddling showed the songs in a telling new light. Keller Williams kept the wonderful melody of “Comes A Time” but sped up the pace and added witty rhythmic flourishes. Glen Hansard lent significant new drama to “Tell Me Why,” not by changing the arrangement but by singing at a slight distance from the mike. It drew the listener in and gave a poignant new sense of strain.

Nada Surf fluffed up the melody of 1975’s “Barstool Blues,” treating it as The Byrds might early Dylan, while Ben Ottewell added a soul vibe to one of the few newer songs, 1992’s “Unknown Legend.” Pete Yorn hedged his bets by offering two takes on “Rockin’ In The Free World” – one wounded and slow, the other triumphant and fun.

Patti Smith lent real empathy to the most recent piece included this night, “It’s A Dream” from 2005’s “Prairie Wind.” The ubiquity of dream imagery in her own work made the connection deep, while her lullaby reading of the melody proved Young can still write a winning tune, more than 40 years into his career.

But the real show stoppers delivered interpretations so radical, they almost deserved a co-writing credit.

Babel Gilberto filled out the wisp of a melody in “Harvest Moon,” rendering it ravishing. She also brought a sly eroticism to its lyric of staid romance. Even the percussion in the piece swooned.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Roots turned “Down By The River” from a psychedelic rock blow-out to a revolutionary jazz-fusion adventure. Guitarist Kirk Douglas brought great speed and erudition to the piece, with complex fingerings and rhythms wild enough to make your head spin. He, and the band, fulfilled the ultimate goal of an interpretation – to make you both appreciate its original structure and marvel at how it can be made new.

For pics, >> nydailynews.

Random Quote

“I\\\'m really turned on by the new music I\\\'m making now, back with Crazy Horse. Today, even as I\\\'m talking, the songs are running through my head. I\\\'m excited. I think everything I\\\'ve done is valid or else I wouldn\\\'t have released it, but I do realize the last three albums have been a certain way. I know I\\\'ve gotten a lot of bad publicity for them. Somehow I feel like I\\\'ve surfaced out of some kind of murk. And the proof will be in my next album.”
by -- Neil Young, from the Cameron Crowe Rolling Stone interview, Aug 14, 1975. Rolling Stone 1975

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