DVD Review: A MusiCares’ Tribute to Neil Young

SRP: $21.98 (Blu-ray) / $16.98 (DVD)
running time: 70 min.

May 31, 2011 – By Glenn McDonald

The new MusiCares’ Tribute to Neil Young DVD features a couple dozen top-notch performers honoring Young in an evening of cover songs and tributes.  It’s a 70 -minute, bare-bones, no-frills affair – just how Neil likes ’em.

The MusiCares Foundation, established in 1989 by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, provides emergency financial assistance for musicians in need. Last year, the organization gave more than 2.5 million in direct financial aid to 2,000 recipients.

The MusiCares Person of the Year tribute dinner takes place annually in Los Angeles during Grammy week, and honors artists for both their contributions to music and their philanthropic efforts. Past recipients include Bono, Natalie Cole, Luciano Pavarotti, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder. In 2010, that artist was Neil Young.

A Low-Key Vibe

After a pair of opening promotional videos detailing MusiCares and Young’s own Bridge School Benefit events, the evening begins with John Fogerty and Keith Urban leading the house band on “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

It soon becomes clear that this will be no rowdy rock concert. The venue is a giant ballroom with an enormous stage, and the crowd is seated at round tables with white linens – expensive food and drink presumably at hand. It’s a benefit concert, after all. In fact, as the musical luminaries take the stage one after another, it starts to seem like the coolest, most mellow wedding reception you’ve never been to.

The performances throughout keep to this low-key vibe, and the tone is really set by that opening number. Fogerty sounds great on vocals, but a song like “Rockin’ in the Free World” is necessarily diminished in this polite setting. “Rockin’ in the Grammy Week Industry Party Venue,” maybe.

It’s with the second performance – Lady Antebellum’s slow and sweet take on “Only Love Can Break Your Heart – that the appeal of this night of performances becomes clear.

Neil Young’s songs have always had an essential portability. I don’t know the statistics, or if there even are statistics, but I’d guess that Young is among the most covered songwriters on the planet. His best songs have a kind of durable structural integrity, in the material sciences sense of the word.

That is to say: Young’s songs are tremendously sturdy. They can be transported into other contexts and genres, twisted and shaped by other artists, and still retain their essential shape. Wiki up any given Neil Young song, and you’ll likely find a long list of cover versions listed at the bottom of the page.

For instance, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” When this song was covered in 1990s by British dance-pop scenesters St. Etienne, it became a club hit, of all things. St. Etienne took a typically eclectic run at the song, switching it up with ethereal vocals of Moira Lambert and a post-acid house beat.

More importantly, that song helped me recover from a particularly savage heartbreak my sophomore year in college. St. Etienne may have delivered “Only Love” to me that summer, but it’s always been Neil’s song, and it’s to him I’m eternally grateful.

Ben Harper, Wilco and Mr. Costello

Anyway, I digress. The point is, when Lady Antebellum interprets the song as a slick country vocal duet, the song settles into that mode just fine, too.

Among the evening’s other highlights is Ben Harper’s plaintive version of “Ohio,” which he delivers with a single slide guitar and a trio of soulful backup singers. Bent over his slide and digging into that song’s immediacy and outrage, Harper is the only performer the whole night who works up an actual sweat.

Harper is mesmerizing, his clenched vocals darting in, out and between the harmonies of the other vocalists (“CC, Shannon and Pebbles,” Harper informs us at the end of the song.) Among an evening of fine but often staid performances, Harper distinguishes himself by digging for something fresh in a 40-year-old topical protest song.

Wilco mixes things up a bit as well with their version of Buffalo Springfield’s “Broken Arrow.” Staying playfully faithful to the 1967 album cut, the band starts with a few bars of “Mr. Soul,” and later pauses for the song’s between-verse calliope vamp and a snare drum crescendo.

“Broken Arrow” is one of the few performances to get the full-band treatment, and the clarity of Wilco’s crisp instrumental interplay is a testament to the excellent sound quality on the DVD. (Blu-ray has 5.1 DTS Master Audio and stereo options; DVD features 5.1 DTS, 5.1 Dolby Digital and stereo options.)

Elvis Costello goes to the other end of the scale with his solo acoustic version of “The Losing End (When You’re On),” demonstrating that Young’s songs can be delivered in full with just an acoustic guitar and a voice. If you’re Elvis Costello, anyway.

The evening’s other performances – see the full track listing below – are all delivered cleanly, professionally and skillfully. A less charitable phrase might be “blandly.” As for Josh Groban’s performance of “Harvest Moon,” – um, maybe just skip that entirely. The DVD is divided into one song per “chapter” heading, so it’s just a quick tap on the remote. You can thank me later.

Still Looking Forward…

The evening finishes strong with Crosby, Stills and Nash on “Human Highway” and the evening’s finale, “Helpless,” featuring Elton John, Leon Russell, Neko Case and Sheryl Crow.

Young concludes the evening with a short acceptance speech, which provides the evening’s only real levity. He starts thanking people by name – Stephen, Graham – then stops himself: “Oh, shit … if I start naming names, I know I’m going to wake up at 4 a.m. and realize I forgot someone.

“I’m very honored,” Young continues. “I’d forgotten how many songs I’d written. But I want to let everyone know I’m working on a new album, and we’ve got four or five songs already written. I don’t want to stop, and I hope to be able to continue for a really long time.”

Amen to that.

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A MusiCares Tribute to Neil Young Program Listing:

Rockin’ In The Free World – Keith Urban/John Fogerty/Booker T. Jones

Only Love Can Break Your Heart – Lady Antebellum

The Needle & The Damage Done – Dave Matthews

Tell Me Why – Norah Jones

Cinnamon Girl – Dierks Bentley/Booker T. Jones

Harvest Moon – Josh Groban

Ohio – Ben Harper

Don’t Let It Bring You Down – Jackson Browne

Broken Arrow – Wilco

Lotta Love – Jason Mraz/Shawn Colvin

(When You’re On) The Losing End – Elvis Costello

Heart Of Gold – James Taylor

Down By The River – John Mellencamp/T Bone Burnett

Human Highway – Crosby, Stills & Nash

Helpless – Elton John/Leon Russell/Neko Case/Sheryl Crow

Bonus Performances

Mr. Soul – Ozomatli

Revolution Blues – Everest