Young puts on show for the ages
I woke up Sunday morning thinking Tom Petty had put on an excellent rock ‘n’ roll show. (Or at least, two-thirds of one; the audience expected and deserved more than 75 or so minutes.)Petty & the Heartbreakers, who headlined the previous night at Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival in Snowmass Village, played with heart and sounded great. And the songs – song after song that not only have been radio hits, but are enduring classics.By Sunday night, my memories of Petty had been obliterated by the singular rock ‘n’ roll force that is Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Sunday night, Young and his mates played long, loud, impassioned, uncompromised music that responded to the statement Young floated out there 25 years ago: rock ‘n’ roll will never die, not as long as Young is playing it.Where Petty relied mostly on safe hits – playing just the title track from his recent CD “The Last DJ,” plus one unrecorded new song, the bluesy “Melinda” – Young challenged his audience by opening with over an hour’s worth of new material.Young played his new CD/rock quasi-opera “Greendale” in its entirety, complete with lip-synching actors, stage sets and video screens with imagery and perplexing messages (“Clear Channel: Support Our War”). It was weird and unique, with a thrown-together feel.But the lack of technical proficiency, in everything about “Greendale” down to the songs, was no shortcoming. It was the essence of Young – taking raw, ambitious artistry, and leaving it in its raw, ambitious state.Though its plot is sketchy, “Greendale,” revolving around the extended Green family of northern California’s Greendale, touched on the encroachment of the media, the failings of government, personal despair. But the “Greendale” portion of the show was no downer.The set ended with the powerful “Be The Rain,” with its chorus of “We’ve got to save the planet for another day.” The stage, filled with dozens of singers and dancers jumping and spinning in an unchoreographed swirl, was an unforgettable sight.Having the audience embrace “Greendale” seemed to set the stage for act two, a monstrous set of mostly familiar rockers. Using the inexplicable energy created between himself and the three-piece Crazy Horse, Young shredded through such anthems as “My My, Hey, Hey,” “Powderfinger,” “Cinnamon Girl” and the more relevant than ever “Rockin’ in the Free World.” After two and a half hours, no one could have said they didn’t get their money’s worth.About the only complaints one could register about Petty are that his set was too short, and that he’s not Neil Young. He probably could have done something about one of these failings.But I’d rather see a short, great set than a long, mediocre one, and Petty’s was the former. The 25-year repertoire he has to draw from – going back to “Refugee,” on through “American Girl” and “Free Fallin'” and into “The Last DJ,” the title track from last year’s album – almost makes Petty’s show a sure thing.The highlight, though, was a surprise, a version of the Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle With Care.” Though Petty was a Wilbury – Charlie T. “Muddy” Wilbury, Jr., to be exact – “Handle With Care” was sung mostly by George Harrison (“Nelson” or “Spike” Wilbury) and Roy Orbison (“Lefty” Wilbury). So the song, a great, funny, non-whiny one about the downside of being a pop star, served as a perfect tribute to those two late Wilburys.The Labor Day Festival opened on a high note on Friday evening, with stellar sets from the reunited Greyboy Allstars and Alpha Blondy. The Greyboys show demonstrated why the band might have a hard time staying together as a unit; they really are all stars.Saxophonist Karl Denson, keyboardist Robert Walter and guitarist Elgin Park – who is also known as Mike Andrews – are killer instrumentalists, filled with ideas. But the musical visions didn’t seem to translate into band infighting; there was nothing but good vibes and wonderful groove sounds coming from the stage. That mood didn’t change as African reggae singer Alpha Blondy began his spirit-heavy set.Saturday opened with Leftover Salmon, who turned in a fine set of rock and bluegrass. The Colorado band played several songs from its yet to be released new album, “Everything Is Round.” Bo Diddley followed, cutting his set short in the middle of a heavy rain storm. It didn’t seem a great loss; Diddley was a competent singer and guitar player, but nothing more.The North Mississippi Allstars were spectacular in their opening set on Sunday. The band has moved in a new recording direction with the CD “Polaris,” to be released next week. That studio approach hasn’t diminished, but broadened, the band’s powerhouse blues-rock foundation.The festival site, on an expanded Snowmass Town Park, seemed to work like a charm. The Jazz Aspen “village,” a huge grassy field that included food stands, crafts vendors, picnic tables, a playground and street performers, was a dream for getting away from the crowds for a bit. Best of all was the huge video screen, that brought the concert stage to the village.In fact, watching “Greendale” on the big screen from the grass, while hearing the band live in the background, seemed a surreal, ideal way to see the show. But after listening to the CD, watching the DVD, and seeing the show both on stage and on the video – not to mention hearing the songs as the soundtrack to my dreams at night – I don’t think there’s a bad way to experience “Greendale.” Can’t wait for the film.[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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