Monday, May 30, 2011

On DVD: "A Musicares Tribute to Neil Young"

As a casual fan of Neil Young—an admirer, but certainly not a connoisseur—I’m probably about the ideal audience for A Musicares Tribute to Neil Young; i.e., familiar enough with the songs, but not so attached to them as to get worked up about their reinventions in the hands of the superstar cast of performers. The program—honoring Young as the music philanthropy program’s 2010 “Person of the Year”—is one of those all-star tribute affairs, with musicians of varying generations, stripes, and skills taking cracks at Young’s most famous compositions, and the results are occasionally rewarding, if somewhat uneven. That’s always the case with shows like these; you’re going to like the performers you like (for me, Ben Harper, Wilco, Elvis Costello, Crosby, Stills & Nash), and those that you don’t (Dave Matthews, Josh Groban, Jason Mraz) certainly aren’t going to make you into a convert by fiddling with a song you value.

The show kicks off with Young’s anthemic “Rockin’ in The Free World” as performed by Keith Urban, John Fogerty, and Booker T. Jones. It sounds like a nightmare combo (something like a fish, peanut butter, and olive sandwich), but the trio—along with the house band—works up a good, muscular cover, though Booker T. is a little hard to hear. Urban is the first of several country performers to turn up, with mixed results; Lady Antebellum’s performance of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” gently nudges out the song’s already-present country leanings, to great effect, but Dierks Bentley’s cover of “Cinnamon Girl” is one of the show’s more forgettable performances (and again, Booker T. gets buried in the mix).

Norah Jones’s sweet, pure voice is a bit of a contrast to Young’s gruffer, harder vocal style, but her sound nicely suits the bluegrass-style arrangement of “Tell Me Why” (plus, she’s awfully pretty in HD). Josh Groban, on the other hand, makes the mistake of performing “Harvest Moon” in an arrangement almost identical to the original, so his near-operatic vocal gymnastics just sound silly. And the notion of a Jason Mraz/Shawn Colvin pairing doesn’t exactly set this viewer’s heart a-flutter, though it seems appropriate that they team for “Lotta Love,” which (as popularly performed by Nicolette Larson, anyway) was probably his schmaltziest song; that’s exactly what it sounds like here.

Those two numbers are the only real missteps though, and there are some nice surprises from the performers I’d expected little from. I’m no fan of Dave Matthews, but his stripped-down, guitar-and-vocals only take on “The Needle and the Damage Done” thankfully eschews the cutesty shit that usually makes his music so irritating. James Taylor is an awfully vanilla vocalist for a song as soulful as “Heart of Gold,” but he puts some stones into it, and gets some help on the background vocals from Costello, Colvin, Mraz, and others. The performance of “Down by the River” by John Mellencamp and T-Bone Burnett is gutsy and soulful, with an edge we haven’t heard in a while from Mr. “Pink Houses.” Jackson Browne’s cover of “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” is equally strong (though his piercing stare, right into camera, is a tad off-putting).

The best performances, surely not by coincidence, were mostly from the artists that pulled this viewer towards the disc. Wilco tackles “Broken Arrow”—a tricky number, filled with key changes, tempo changes, and mood changes—with their customary skill, while Costello’s simple performance of “(When You’re On) The Losing End” is heartfelt and beautifully sung. Young’s old bandmates Crosby Stills & Nash go for austerity as well, with a warm, lovely rendition of “Human Highway” that packs a wallop with only their three voices and one quiet guitar.

The highlight of the program, however, is Ben Harper’s electrifying interpretation of “Ohio,” performed with a slide guitar and a trio of gospel-flavored harmony singers. It is a divine, gooseflesh-raising take on one of Young’s most powerful songs; it leaves one wondering what Harper can’t do. I make no apologies for spoiling the flow of the show by, upon the song’s completion, immediately skipping back to hear it again. It’s a great number.

A Musicares Tribute to Neil Young ends somewhat anti-climactically, with another odd combination: Elton John, Leon Russell, and T-Bone Burnett (which makes sense, right off their collaboration on The Union), plus Neko Case and Sheryl Crow. Elton and Leon trade off well, but Crow and Case’s voices don’t mesh as cleanly as they need to, and the subsequent piano solos are rather listless—the whole thing feels under-rehearsed, and is something of an underwhelming conclusion, musically speaking. Young speaks, briefly and charmingly, but doesn’t sing; too bad. Running almost exactly one hour, this tribute show is a hit-and-miss enterprise. But there are enough truly great performances to warrant a recommendation.

"A Musicares Tribute to Neil Young" hits DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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