2010 Cultural Olympiad: Hal Willner’s Neil Young Project

How is it possible to have members Broken Social Scene, Metric, Iron & Wine, Eric’s Trip, Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon, Shivaree, Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Land of Talk, Treble Charger plus Joan as Policewoman, Ron Sexsmith, Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Eric Mingus (son of Charles), Teddy Thompson (son of Richard and Linda), Jenni Muldaur (daughter of Maria and Geoff) and handfuls of other phenomenal session musicians from the US and Canada up on the same stage together doing Neil Young covers and have the end result be so….draggy and inconsistent?

I’ll tell you how: It was all about the songs, man.

Hal Willner’s Neil Young Project (part of the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad) had lofty goals…and in many ways delivered on them. Get together incredible Canadian (mostly Toronto-based) and US (mostly NYC-based) and perform the songs of the venerable, wonderful, Neil Young. Play rareties and hits, and show the crowd a real good time.

And for about half of the show, that’s what they did (thank the gods for Elvis Costello and hey, even, you Mr. Cranky Lou Reed). But for the other half, total snoozeville.

Ultimately, the Olympic-happy crowd weren’t hardcore Young fans. They didn’t want rareties. THEY WANTED TO TAP THEIR TOES AND NOD AND SING ALONG, gods dammit!

And lest you argue: “but, hey, Backstage Rider, Neil Young does a fair few slow, ballady songs”, I would counter that he has, over the years, also managed to inject those ballads with a bit of edgy rebel awesomeness.

Emily Haines, Metric, Brit Kwasney photo
Emily Haines, Metric, Brit Kwasney photo

And that’s what was missing for a good part of the show. Despite the collected musical wisdom on stage, songs were a bit too earnest, a bit too bland. Just when things got going, they faltered. Hurry up, wait. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But there was still a fair few stellar moments scattered amongst the sleepy (and creepy. Yes, you, English folk singer Vashti Bunyan. Thanks for ruining two excellent songs “After Goldrush” and “Wrecking Ball.”)

Ron Sexsmith’s versions of “New Mama” and “Bethlehem” stirred the crowd, while Bill Priddle (Treble Charger/Broken Social Scene) sounded like a young Harvest-era Young on “Oh Mr. Soul” – just lovely. Emily Haines from Metric’s “A Man Needs a Maid” was flawless and came equipped with a kind of seething intensity.

Lou Reed, Vashti Bunyan, BackstageRider photo
Lou Reed and Vashti Bunyan, BackstageRider photo

And Eric Mingus? Genius. He bopped onto stage, booming: “Someone said we didn’t engage the audience enough last night…they may regret that” and then played and danced through a funky version of “For the Turnstiles”, winding it up with some totally bonkers scat singing. Later, he “destructurized” Young’s “On the Way Home” and turned into beat poetry. Brilliant.

Jason Collett strutted around the stage for a version of “Walk On” with Julie Doiron, Jenni Muldaur and Elizabeth Powell bopping in the background. BSS’s Sam Goldberg and Kevin Drew did a pretty groovy version of “Out on the Weekend” with awesome Hammond organ support by the most excellent ex-Bourbon Chris Brown.

Mark Kozelek from Sun Kil Moon/Red House Painters with Ambrosia Parsley (Shivaree) and Emily Haines doing “Sugar Mountain” sounded sublime.

Oh and Lou Reed? Coming on stage in trademark leathers and scowl, he blasted through a crunchy rock version of “Helpless” then stayed on stage to play back-up guitarman for Julie Doiron as she muddled through “Harvest”.

Elvis Costello, BackstageRider photo
Elvis Costello, BackstageRider photo

The winner, undoubtedly, though, was Oh Mr. Gold (sparkling suit-jacket to represent Gold medals), Elvis Costello. How much of a genius is he? *Holds arms wide apart* THIS MUCH.

The crowd swooned and cheered and Ctapped their toes and grinned like fools through the three tracks he played: “Love in Mind”, then later “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Cinnamon Girl” with Joan as Policewoman. He was like snowboarder Shaun White – in terms of awesome, Costello was miles apart from anyone else on stage.

Afterwards, Joan Wasser/as Policewoman was having a smoke outside. She looked (and said she was) exhausted.  It wasn’t a perfect night. And it was definitely a long one. But as musical director (along with BSS’s Brendan Canning) she should be proud that nobody really f*cked up on stage and that during the three hours there was at least 90 minutes of excellence.

Step up and accept your bronze medal, Hal Willner. You can go for Gold in the next Games.

Learn more about the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad.

Thanks to Brittney Kwasney from Bright Photography

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