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10 Best Things We Saw at Neil Fest

Latest Best Fest event featured stars and unknowns paying eclectic tribute to Neil Young

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Nicole Fara Silver

There are very few artists whose catalogue — wildly diverse, full of forgotten gems and disparate genres — lends itself more naturally to the tribute-show format than Neil Young. On Sunday and Monday night at New York's Bowery Ballroom, the Cabin Down Below Band played host to the first-ever Neil Fest (the latest in the illustrious Best Fest series), which featured dozens of artists, from Michelle Branch to Charles Bradley, singing their favorite Neil songs with a set list that ranged from Young's late-Sixties beginnings with Buffalo Springfield to his mid-Nineties work with Pearl Jam.

During the past decade the Best Fest has transformed from a local bar-band gathering to a traveling tribute-show production, honoring artists such as Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and the Rolling Stones in recent years, and benefiting the Sweet Relief Fund. Each night of the inaugural Neil Fest was a marathon three-hour show that featured members of bands such as Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Guster, the Gaslight Anthem and the Black Keys alongside solo stars like Ryan Adams, Norah Jones and Sharon Van Etten. We look back at some of the highlights from the two-night affair.

Norah Jones, Sasha Dobson and Jillete Johnson

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Deep Track: Norah Jones’ “Don’t Be Denied”

Neil Fest focused almost exclusively on Young's Seventies discography, with albums like HarvestAfter the Gold Rush and On the Beach receiving the most attention throughout the night. But one of Sunday's biggest highlights came late, when Sasha Dobson, Jillette Johnson and Norah Jones, who sang lovely backup vocals throughout both shows as part of the house band, took center stage for a gorgeous version of "Don't Be Denied" from Young's oft-mythologized 1973 live album, Time Fades Away. Jones, who has covered countless Young songs throughout her career, led the way on the autobiographical song, taking the first and last verses during the perfectly executed performance.

Mickey Raphael

Mickey Raphael performs with Caleb Followill at Bowery Ballroom in New York City on September 14, 2015.

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Sideman: Mickey Raphael

As the longstanding harmonica player for Willie Nelson, Mickey Raphael has played harp alongside Young himself for decades, frequently accompanying the iconic singer-songwriter at Nelson and Young's annual Farm Aid benefit. At Neil Fest, Raphael could be found joining a host of performers on harmonica each night, adding texture to songs like "Mellow My Mind," "Unknown Legend," "Comes a Time" and "Heart of Gold." As one of the only performers onstage who had performed with Young, Raphael served as the unassuming elder statesman of the shows, adding some country authenticity to the Cabin Down Below Band's airtight arrangements.

Charles Bradley

Charles Bradley performs during Neil Fest at Bowery Ballroom in New York City on September 14, 2015.

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Soul Showstopper: Charles Bradley

There was little question what song Charles Bradley would be singing when the 66-year-old singer first took the stage Sunday evening. Bradley, who released an inspired, transformative cover of Young's "Heart of Gold" four years ago, revived his signature take on the standard to thunderous applause. "I'm home," Bradley announced to the crowd before launching into Young's only Number One hit. Though the performance might have benefitted from some horns, Bradley infused the performance with enough energy — dancing his way through the plaintive Harvest anthem — to make his "Heart of Gold" the runaway highlight of the two-night tribute.

Kim Gordon

Kim Gordon performs (as Body/Head) during Neil Fest at Bowery Ballroom in New York City on September 14, 2015.

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Unrecognizable Cover: Body/Head’s “On the Beach”

"This is where the professionalism breaks down," announced Kim Gordon shortly after taking the stage as one half of Body/Head, the experimental-noise duo the former Sonic Youth member has been playing in since 2012. It was also where all the conventions of a tribute show — pleasing crowds with deferential song arrangements and straightforward sing-alongs — were completely suspended. Aided by guitarist Bill Nace, Gordon worked through a feedback-laden, utterly unrecognizable, nine-minute deconstruction of "On the Beach," chanting the song's dismally bleak lyrics with a heavily distorted echo. Crowd reactions to Gordon's feedback-heavy vocals ranged from impatient ("I don't know what's going on") to incensed ("Shut the fuck up! Get off the stage!"). It was the most adventurous musical experimentation of the evening; without question, it would have been Neil's personal favorite.

Brian Fallon

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Coffeehouse Folkie: Brian Fallon

Brian Fallon, lead singer of the Gaslight Anthem, has expressed a great deal of admiration for Young over the years, covering songs like "Heart of Gold" and "Rockin' in the Free World" live and even talking up Young's influence on Gaslight's 2012 record, Handwritten. Fallon took the stage by himself at Neil Fest, singing a fragile, innocent take on the title track from After the Gold Rush. "I'm still hoping it was a lie," he sang at the end of the second verse, subtly updating the song. Fallon made Young's immortal tune sound like an early Gaslight Anthem outtake, complete with crowd sing-alongs.

Valerie June

Ruby Amanfu performs during Neil Fest at Bowery Ballroom in New York City on September 14, 2015.

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Unusual Voice: Valerie June

Rootsy singer-songwriter Valerie June sounds nothing like Neil Young, but the artists do share an untraditional nasal vocal delivery that makes Young's material an easy fit for June's off-kilter soprano. June performed an appropriately laid-back version of Young's strung-out Tonight's the Night gem "Mellow My Mind" and closed Sunday's show by taking lead vocals on a finale sing-along of "Helpless." Most the first evening's performers joined June onstage for the CSNY standard, but it made perfect sense for June to be the one in the spotlight.

Sharon Van Etten

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Adorable Dedication: Sharon Van Etten

"This song's for my parents," Sharon Van Etten announced as she took the stage halfway through Monday's show. "They introduced me to Neil Young's music when I was a kid. I might cry, so I'm sorry." Van Etten then launched into a note-perfect rendition of Young's "I Believe in You," complete with rich harmony vocals from Jones, Dobson and Johnson. It was an ideal fit: Van Etten's stark, elegant take on the After the Gold Rush composition would have sounded right at home on Van Etten's own 2014 LP, Are We There. After blowing a kiss and waving to her parents in the balcony during the song's outro, Van Etten disappeared from the stage, leaving the crowd with the most endearing, personal moment of Neil Fest.

Ruby Amanfu

Ruby Amanfu performs (as Body/Head) during Neil Fest at Bowery Ballroom in New York City on September 14, 2015.

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Reinterpretation: Ruby Amanfu’s “For the Turnstiles”

Two years ago, Ruby Amanfu stole the show at Bob Fest with her stripped-down performance of Dylan's "Not Dark Yet." Amanfu once again became one of the stars of a Best Fest tribute when she performed a forceful, self-assured rendition of the On the Beach deep cut "For the Turnstiles" at Neil Fest. Amanfu reimagined the song, performed originally with only a banjo and a squeaky, voice-cracking vocal take from Young, as a soaring, gospel-infused R&B ballad.

Jakob Dylan, Brian Fallon and Butch Walker

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Impromptu Supergroup: Patrick Carney, Jakob Dylan, Brian Fallon and Butch Walker

"This one goes out to central Ohio," announced house-band bassist Austin Scaggs toward the end of Sunday's show, before calling up a number of performers for a loose, unexpected performance of "Ohio." Jakob Dylan, Brian Fallon and Butch Walker did their best punk-CSNY impression, gathering around the mic to share harmony lead vocals on a stomping rendition of Young's Kent State protest anthem. 

"He's a lover, not a fighter," house bassist and Best Fest ringleader Austin Scaggs joked when introducing Patrick Carney on drums during Monday's show, after Carney made headlines for exchanging harsh words with Jack White at a Neil Fest after-party the previous evening.

(Ryan Adams and Norah Jones

Ryan Adams and Norah Jones perform during Neil Fest at Bowery Ballroom in New York City on September 14, 2015.

Nicole Fara Silver

Best A-List Duet: Ryan Adams and Norah Jones

Smartphones were out recording in force when Sunday's headliner, Ryan Adams, welcomed Norah Jones to the stage for an unadorned duet on "Old Man." It had been 10 years since the duo first joined together on "Dear John," a song they co-wrote for Adams' Jacksonville City Nights record in 2005, and the two longtime collaborators performed a hushed, melancholy rendition of the Harvest classic accompanied only by Adams' electric guitar. The crowd, which remained chatty and largely uninterested in anything remotely quiet for most of Sunday's show, fell completely silent watching the night's two biggest names laying bare one of Young's signature tunes.

In This Article: Neil Young, Ryan Adams

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