In the summer of 2003, Neil Young hit the road with Crazy Horse for a run of North American amphitheater shows where they played their new rock opera, Greendale, straight through, complete with crudely built stage sets and actors playing all the parts. The only problem: Greendale wasn’t even out yet, so most fans showed up thinking they were getting a night of classics like “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down by the River.”
This led to many baffled and disappointed crowds; some dudes behind me at a Columbus, Ohio, show that summer began singing “Hey Hey, My My” to themselves midway through the night. But audience members who opened their minds to the experience got to enjoy a sensational evening of music and theater. And now, 17 years later, Young is revisiting the project with the live album and concert film Return to Greendale.
Most individual Greendale songs don’t really work outside the broader context of the album, especially scene-setting tunes like “Double E” and “Carmichael.” One of the exceptions is the gentle, acoustic “Bandit.” It’s the one song from the album that would have almost worked on a classic Seventies record like Comes a Time. It’s a tale of hope and faith even in the most dire of circumstances, and it takes a moment to paraphrase a line (“You’re invisible/You’ve got too many secrets”) from Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” The live rendition from Return to Greendale is especially touching.
There’s an absurd flood of archival Neil Young archival material coming in the next few weeks, thanks to the long-awaited release of the 10-disc Archives II, meaning that Return to Greendale is likely to be overshadowed in a big way. But anyone who walked out of a Greendale show disappointed should check it out. They might realize they missed out on something very special.