Here’s something from the archives: one of my rambling cover stories from Da Boot, a short-lived, bootleg-centric—and very cool—fanzine that I was involved with in the late ‘90s.
It was a concert for the ages: A two-and-a-half-hour set that mixed a healthy dose of new songs with older numbers reshaped and refashioned for the occasion. The show resonated with a power palpable to all but the tone deaf.
No, I’m not talking Neil Young here.
I’m talking Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, who played the Theatre of the Living Arts in Philadelphia on March 15th, 1999, in support of Earle’s bluegrass album, The Mountain. About the only thing missing? Iris DeMent, whose duet with Steve on “I’m Still in Love with You” is—to my ears, at least—the album’s piece de resistance. Nevertheless, it was one of “those” shows. Weaving in and out from the stage’s lone microphone (essentially mixing themselves), the six-piece unit conjured a magical evening of grace and grit. One highlight: Earle’s solo rendition of the mournful ”Goodbye,” which left the audience stoned on its vibe. Another: the McCoury Band-backed “Copperhead Road.” Transformed from a “heavy-metal bluegrass” number into an out-and-out bluegrass romp, it was intoxicating: “My name’s John Lee Pettimore … same as my daddy and his daddy before …” I’m reminded of that night whenever I listen to The Mountain. There’s no drums, no electric guitar, no electric instruments at all. There’s no need. The juice is in the performances themselves.
Along those lines, the juice is in the music of Steve’s sister Stacey, too, who crafts heartfelt songs and sings ‘em as if her life depended upon it. Same goes for Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, both of whom performed at a benefit May 2nd at the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby (a ‘burb outside of Philadelphia). As usual for a Philly crowd, the fans were boisterous, screaming out requests for old favorites between songs. At one point during Jackson’s set, for example, he approached the mike with his guitar in hand. “Late for the Sky” came a lone voice from the back row. The applause rolled through the room like a wave in from the ocean and splashed him in the face. What to do? Jackson smiled, set the guitar down and eased behind the electric piano, and then let loose an impassioned rendition of that classic. Giving the fans what they want? To an extent, yes. Still, he managed to include quite a few of his latter-day songs during his shortened set. As for Bonnie, her warmth shone from the stage whether alone, with bassist Hutch Hutchinson or when Jackson joined her for a duet of “Angel from Montgomery.” It was a fabulous, fun evening; you felt as if they’d invited you into their parlor.
Why mention all that in this, a review of Neil Young’s solo show at the same Tower Theater on April 24th? It’s important, on occasion, to step back and survey the larger music scene. Thanks to the Internet, these days it’s easy to zero in on one artist and essentially blank everyone else out. You know the deal: One trade leads to another which, in turn, leads to another. Soon enough you’re collecting every show you can get your hands on, whether it’s a crappy-sounding (but great!) set from the ’73 Tonight’s the Night tour or a great-sounding (but otherwise grueling) date from Neil & the Horse’s ’97 HORDE excursion. In there somewhere, maybe during an audience recording of that god-awful TTN set, you hear the reason why you do what you do: “Tonight’s the night… tonight’s the ni-hi-hight…” It’s nirvana. Right? Yeah, sure, you listen to other artists—in between listening to the latest additions to your Neil collection.
Do I sound peevish? Damn straight.
Yes, Neil laid down a very good, two-hour performance before a typical Philly crowd. “Shut up, you asshole,” he snapped to one overzealous fan who demanded he cut short a semi-humorous story in favor of a song. While I understood Neil’s outburst, I also understood the fan’s. To be blunt, the show wasn’t just overpriced—it was out-and-out highway robbery. Ticket prices ranged from $51 to $151; an uninformed (i.e., not on the ‘net) concert-goer may have feared that the more Neil talked, the less songs he’d play. I know, I know: No one forced that fan to buy his ticket. No one forced me, either, yet there I was, sitting 26 rows back and staring at slowpoke Neil, nodding my head and grinning at the start of “Tell Me Why” and tapping my feet to “War of Man,” then all-but-hypnotized by the stark “Out of Control,” which featured a melody reminiscent of his Trans-era tunes. The rest of the set seemed somewhat perfunctory, marred primarily by the throwaway placed at its end: the sleight “Daddy Went a-Walkin’.”
The second set was better, accented by the rambling, Dylanesque “Last Trip to Tulsa” and “Southern Pacific,” a gem from the overlooked re*ac*tor. “Long May You Run” continued the mood unabated: At the pump organ, Neil offered a mournful meditation on a car gone wrong. The rest of the set remained at that same stellar level, with a brilliant “After the Gold Rush” that found Neil starting the song at the piano before adjourning to the pump organ and bridging the transition with a brilliant harmonica solo. By the end of the night? I raved to Diane that the concert was hypnotic, mesmerizing, overpriced—and not the best solo Neil performance I’ve seen. That would have been in ’89. Back then, of course, he was a hungry, near-has-been seeking redemption from a decade-long slump. Stalking the stage with his acoustic guitar strapped to his stomach, he strummed killer chords to such then-unreleased songs as “Crime in the City,” “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “No More.” Here we have … “Daddy Went a-Walkin’”?!
Granted, that’s a cheap shot; as with “Out of Control,” the middle song of the first encore (“Railroad Song”?) was a potent promise of what next Neil may have in store for his fans, either on the CSNY reunion disc (now said to be scheduled for August) or on next year’s solo effort. But, then, Neil’s left himself open to such shots. This tour, he’s sold-out—literally and figuratively. Me, next time he comes to town charging those kind of prices—
I’ll be there, damning both him—and me. ‘Cause, baby, let me tell ya … there’s this tape of him and the Santa Monica Flyers from Chicago ’73 that features a 35-minute version of “Tonight’s the Night” that’s just plain, insanely great. Thirty-five minutes! Now where’d the hell I put it….
Ah, fuck it. The Mountain will do.
Steve Earle & The Del McCoury Band at the TLA, 3/16/99:
Steve & McCoury Band: Texas Eagle/Yours Forever Blue/My Old Friend the Blues/Graveyard Shift/Outlaw’s Honeymoon/Dixieland/Connemara Breakdown/Harlan Man/The Mountain/I Still Carry You Around//Del McCoury Band: Far Cry From Va./Don’t You Think It’s Time to Go/Red Eyes on a Mad Dog/I Feel the Blues Movin’ In/She’s Left Me Again/50-50 Chance/Backslidin’ Blues/Pike County Breakdown/Nashville Cats/Get Down on Your Knees and Pray/Love Is a Long Road//Steve Solo: No.29/Now She’s Gone/Angry Young Man/South Nashville Blues/Valentine’s Day/So Different Blues/Limo Blues/Goodbye/Ellis Unit One//Steve & McCoury Band: Mystery Train Pt.2/Leroy’s Dustbowl Blues/Ain’t No Liquor in This Town/Hometown Blues/Lonesome Highway Blues/I’m Looking Through You/Ben McCulloch/ Tom Ames’ Prayer/Carrie Brown/Copperhead Road//Lonesome Road/Hillbilly Highway/Down the Road
Neil Young at the Tower Theatre, 4/24/99:
Tell Me Why/Looking Forward/War of Man/Out of Control/Alberquerque/World on a String/ Don’t Let It Bring You Down/Philadelphia/Love Is a Rose/Daddy Went a Walkin’//Distant Camera/ Last Trip to Tulsa/Southern Pacific/Old Man/Long May You Run/Harvest Moon/Slowpoke/Needle & the Damage Done/After the Gold Rush//Good to See You/Railroad Town/Sugar Mountain///Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere