Whoever coined the all-too-appropriate phrase "let the games begin" probably wasn't thinking about the epic battle that played out between Canada and the United States at the Queen E on Thursday night, but it's hard to imagine a more gripping contest — even on ice.
That's probably not what producer Hal Willner had in mind when he came up with the idea for the Neil Young Project. In fact, in an earlier interview with the Straight, he expressed the hope that both of his "house bands" — Toronto's Broken Social Scene and an ad hoc collection of ace New York session players — would wind up playing together. This did happen, on occasion, but more often the two groups took turns — highlighting, in the process, the cultural divide between their native lands.
The Canadians, as usual, were respectful and guileless and communally minded, as when Broken Social Scene's Jason Collett sweet-talked the crowd into a goofy — but effective — exercise in creating an audio rainstorm out of finger snapping and knee slapping. The Yanks, as usual, were more individualistic and took greater artistic risks, as when singer and upright bassist Eric Mingus led a fantastically vivid avant-gospel version of Young's minor masterpiece "For the Turnstiles."
So who won the tourney?
But at least he's our Brit: West Van resident Elvis Costello, a Londoner by birth, was one of two surprise guests and the undeniable star of a night that was in sore need of resuscitation after a run of unexceptional performances midway through its second act.
I knew it was coming — during intermission, I had scoped out the soundboard and discovered a set list in full public view. But I had no idea just how stunning Costello's second appearance of the night would be. Sure, he'd given hints with his earlier rendition of "Love in Mind," a major performance of a minor song during which he'd been in full Tony Bennett jazz-crooner mode. But when it came to the one-two punch of "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Cinnamon Girl," both from Young's breakthrough Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere LP of 1969, he simply killed.
Barely in control of a big, blond Gibson guitar that squealed and snarled like it was possessed by old Shakey himself, Costello stalked the stage with a flamenco dancer's élan. Even a ridiculous leopard-skin trilby didn't undercut his sinister — and, yes, weirdly sexy — intensity; he'd probably skinned that cat himself.
The crowd, which had been drifting toward torpidity, rose to its feet and stayed there for the rest of the night.
There were other highlights, including James Blood Ulmer's slurred but compellingly surreal take on "Scenery," Teddy Thompson's sweetly sung "I Believe in You," and the arrival of the night's other unannounced guest, Emily Haines, whose tough edge brought a new dimension to "A Man Needs a Maid." A couple of Willner's conceptual notions didn't quite come off, such as the pairing of Ulmer and Lou Reed on an oddly tepid "Fuckin' Up." And there were a few out-and-out disappointments, such as Iron & Wine mainstay Sam Beam's disappearing act and folk icon Vashti Bunyan's disappearing voice.
It was a mixed bag, then. Somehow, though, this seems appropriate for a survey of the notoriously unpredictable Young's oeuvre — and Costello's star turn was genius. Elvis was in the house — and so, through him, was Neil.