Bringing the Hal Willner Neil Young Project to Vancouver during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games was a complete no-brainer — if you're celebrating Canada's diverse talent and rich music history, it's a major coup to recruit some of the country's most revered musicians (plus American greats) to play the selected songs of one of its finest and most beloved artists.
Some would argue that bringing in the Broken Social Scene family is too obvious, but who can deny the far-reaching network they have at their disposal? Besides, they were only responsible for the Canadian content, with Joan Wasser, a.k.a. indie punk R&B songstress Joan As Police Woman, responsible for the American players.
The night had a special air to it beyond the catch-lightning-in-a-bottle nature of the lineup and potential set list. Lou Reed had already been touted as part of the bill when the show was originally announced, but only days before Elvis Costello was added in as a last-minute ringer. Oh my.
One can only imagine how chaotic it must be to not only organize over 20 musicians into one three-hour set, but also keep the night running smoothly when you have a revolving door of lead singers and different combinations to juggle.
So it wasn't surprising the show's opening was a bit sloppy — there were no introductions to any of the players, and no welcome beyond Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning saying he hoped the crowd would stick with the group for the entire night.
Yes, there was a voiceover intro — a completely random snippet of Alfred Hitchcock asking his audience if they believe in ghosts and making sure that the lights are out and the doors closed. Cute. But a proper intro of the musicians — especially since they led with about 15 onstage — would have been nice, too.
A group of vocalists including folk singer/songwriter Teddy Thompson, BSS's Jason Collett and Julie Doiron opened with "A Dream That Can Last," and sang at the front of the stage while timpani and piano provided the gorgeously soft background. Following that, the full band seemed to flood the stage for a bouncy and lively "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," offering two drum kits, two pianos (one upright, one grand), three guitarists and two bassists.
The tricky part of the night was adjusting to the constantly rotating cast for each song. It was hard to even realize there was a string section (that Wasser was a part of on violin) until Teddy Thompson's take on "Don't Cry No Tears." It once again spoke to the difficulty in taking on such a large initiative.
But you couldn't help thinking they should have assigned a proper and consistent MC for the night. Prior to the fourth song (Ron Sexmith's mostly acoustic "New Mama") Wasser finally started announcing each new vocalist as they took the stage.
From there, it was like hitting shuffle on an iPod filled with Young's entire catalogue. Collett and Land Of Talk's Elizabeth Powell executed a perfectly down-home version of "Down To The Wire;" Metric's Emily Haines and James Shaw ignored the catcalls and whistles for Haines to offer a pretty faithful (and slightly sinister) "A Man Needs A Maid." When Haines pleaded, "When will I see you again?" it was killer.
Other highlights before the intermission included jazz/blues vocalist/poet Eric Mingus' very menacing and body-shaking "For The Turnstiles," Sun Kill Moon's (and former Red House Painter) Mark Kozelek singing "Albuquerque" and of course, the evening's two crown jewels.
Costello walked on stage to the night's loudest of cheers, and by politely shushing the crowd and immediately picking up his guitar, the message of the night was clear — this was a group, not individual, performance.
With a Burt Bacharach-ian horn section backing him, Costello crooned a lovely "Love In Mind" to the delight of a completely dumbstruck crowd wowed by the fact that they were watching one legend cover another legend.
Speaking of legends, Reed was bathed with a chorus of "Louuuuuuuuuuu" from the crowd before silently setting up and ripping into the great "Helpless." It was so sublime to listen to Reed's powerful yet calm and cool voice ring through the theatre while the full band blasted through the classic.
Post-intermission brought back — as promised — most of the singers and players from the first half of the show. It also brought BSS's Kevin Drew (who had been ominously absent until that point) out as a quasi-MC/guitar/vocalist, giving the night a little more structure and also a little more fun.
Among more of the notable moments: Canning performed a by-the-numbers "Harvest Moon," Reed came back to lead a psych-out noodling jam, folk singer Vashti Bunyan and vocalist Ambrosia Parsley shared vocal duties on a quiet and tender "Wrecking Ball" (during which Bunyan's voice unfortunately consistently cracked). Collett (with about 20 of the players on-stage) took lead on an infectiously spirited "Walk On" before getting the audience to participate in a "make it rain" exercise involving rubbing of hands, snapping and knee-slapping in unison.
Costello's return to the stage brought the crowd to their feet, taking command of a raucous "Cowgirl In The Sand" — watching Costello riffing hard on a Young solo, still dressed in a sharp suit and fedora is something to behold — and a duet with Wasser on "Cinnamon Girl." As patriotic as the crowd was on this night, Costello was clearly their favourite.
For a show that understandably flew by the seat of its pants for most of the night, few could complain about what they had just witnessed. Sure, the musicians probably had more fun than the audience at times, but it's hard to fault them for enjoying a night of playing with so much talent assembled on one stage.
The lack of a proper MC was definitely missed. Even with Drew taking over the reins a bit for the last half of the show, it still missed some valuable structure.
Leave it to Doiron to say what hadn't already been said — that it was an honour to be on the stage playing the songs of someone who has meant a lot to everyone on stage in some way over the years.
In the end, the performances that stood out the most were by the vocalists who sang in their own voices and weren't trying to emulate Young's nasally falsetto. Whereas Reed, Costello and Kozelek really shined, former Treble Charger co-lead Bill Priddle, new BSSer Sam Goldberg, Bunyan and even Canning's treatments were well-played but hard to remember after the fact.
Nonetheless, the timing for this show and its execution were still a victory. During a week when patriotism for the country is running high, Young stood tall.