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Movie Review: Neil Young Trunk Show - Scenes From A Concert
About a third of the 82-minute running length of Neil Young’s latest Jonthan Demme-directed concert film is taken up by just two songs, “Ambulance Blues” and “No Hidden Path”. The former is played as a serene meditation performed solo on acoustic guitar and harmonica, while the latter serves as a springboard for eighteen minutes’ worth of frantic, explosive guitar soloing. Placed together in the middle of the film, they paint a picture of the subject at his most extreme. These aren’t songs that had any hope of finding their way onto radio, but to a certain part of his fanbase, they’re what makes him the real deal. There’s a certain fearlessness about doing a song for that long, a confidence that audience should be willing to follow wherever you want to go, which is what lets you go where no one else does. Not all of the film is like that - some of its finest songs are below the three-minute mark - but Demme gives his subject the space and time needed to get his message across.
This is the second concert film in four years from the team of Young and Demme, but while they naturally share certain similarities, the differences are acute. Heart Of Gold, released in 2006, had an understated, golden-hued tone that fit the music, comprised of Young’s country-inspired works in the Harvest/ Comes A Time vein. The 2007 tour documented in Trunk Show was a more mixed bag, featuring Young doing a quiet, hypnotic solo set followed by a raucous band set. (See our review of the tour’s LA shows here.) Demme juxtaposes the band and solo tracks as he sees fit, giving it the feel of a fan’s mixtape of concert highlights. And he’s not afraid to be abrupt in his transitions; the volume jump in between the gentle breeze of “Harvest” and the nuclear blast of “Cinnamon Girl” seems intended to jolt the viewers out of their chairs.
The bootleggish nature of the new film is also felt in the use of of hand-held audience cameras. There are shots in some of the more rocking songs where there’s literally a head blocking out a third of the screen, and if someone stands up to go to the bathroom, the screen goes black for a moment. Fortunately this effect isn’t over-used, and its occasional appearance adds to the “you are there” feeling. Though half the film is much louder than its predecessor, the sound is once again excellent, full, rich, dynamic, with guitar dominating the soundstage.
But the biggest difference has to do with the overall format of the performance. Unlike the Nashville shows filmed for Heart Of Gold, which were rehearsed meticulously down the second, the band here is loose and flexible. “Like A Hurricane” proves especially so toward the end; watch the back and forth facial expressions between Young and Molina as Ralphie gets a cue that seems to mean “end it all” when actually Young wants him to go to double time. The whole thing falls apart and comes back together in less than ten seconds, but it’s still a moment that you imagine most other groups would leave on the editing room floor. Young’s own sensibility as a filmmaker, first revealed in his 1973 auto-biographical fantasy epic Journey Through The Past, is such that I imagine him in the editing room furiously advocating for every mistake to be left in. “Keep the fucked-up version! More shots with heads in them!”
So do we really need another Neil Young concert movie? Besides Demme’s, there have already been the 1979 midnight-movie fave Rust Never Sleeps, the 1996 Jim Jarmusch buddy-lovefest Year Of The Horse, and home video releases from virtually every tour he’s done for the last thirty years. That’s a lot of versions of “Like A Hurricane” weighing down the shelf. But this picture does include some things you haven’t seen before: rare performances of “Sad Movies”, “Mexico” and “Kansas”, gorgeous remnants of the still-unsurfaced Homegrown album from 1975, along with “The Sultan”, the 1963 single he cut as a member of the The Squires. There are also several tracks from his then-current Chrome Dreams II album, which stand up nicely next to the heavy company surrounding them. And there’s a luminescent version of “Oh, Lonesome Me”, where Young’s touring band of Ben Keith (pedal steel, rhythm guitar, keyboards), Rick Rosas (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums) is joined by Anthony “Sweet Pea” Crawford on piano and wife Pegi Young on vocals, that just melts the paint of the wall.
And even the handful of familiar songs are worth hearing again. This is simply one of the best bands I’ve ever seen Young put together. Crazy Horse drummer Molina adds a lot to the mix. Though admittedly not one of the technical wizards of the instrument, he makes a great foil to Young the exploratory guitar player, once described as being “the catcher in a trapeze act”. Ben Keith shows why he’s been a VIP of Neil Young sidemen since 1972, treating every song with grace and invention no matter what instrument he’s asked to play. And “Rick The Bass Player” does just what the name says, finding his own place within the ancient chemistry shared by the other three.
As for that two-song/ half-hour segment in the middle? I wouldn’t want to be without it. The brilliance of someone like Young is the ability to play endlessly without making the listener feel like they’re waiting for the next thing to start happening. Like good funk music, or free jazz, it’s about being stuck in the moment and holding it there, because it feels so good you don’t want it to stop. Demme’s choice to follow this with ten minutes of the spare, rambling “Ambulance Blues” is kind of brilliant, because the song has the same ability to suspend time even though there’s no soloing going on, just an occasional two-note harmonica blast in between verses. It’s sustained by the zen humor of the lyrics (“All along the Navajo trail/ burnouts stub their toes on garbage pails…”) and a fragile melodicism that goes far beyond mellow.
I can understand that twenty minutes of blinding guitar solos might not be for everyone. But if they find themselves sitting through this segment of the film not sure what to make of it, I’d encourage them to give it a try. Stop checking your watch. Let the guy take you where he wants you to go. As a fan, it’s gratifying to see him on the big screen, not holding anything back, free to play as long, as loud, as delicate as he might choose to do at any moment. I only hope reports of a planned “trilogy” are correct.