Leave it to Patti Smith to comb through 45 years of Neil Young’s music to pick out the perfect song to close out the main set of the Music of Neil Young benefit concert at Carnegie Hall. Accompanied only by her daughter Jesse on piano, Smith delivered a spellbinding rendition of Young’s 2005 obscurity “It’s A Dream.” The song, written soon after Young’s near-fatal aneurysm, reflects Young’s undying love for his family as he faces the knowledge that he won’t be around forever. As Smith tenderly sang, “It’s a dream, only a dream and it’s fading away,” you could have heard a pin drop in the theater – until it ended and Smith earned the loudest applause of the night.
If only the other artists of the evening had been as bold with their song selection. Over five decades Young has explored blues, rockabilly, grunge, country and even New Wave. His brief period as a folk rocker in the early 1970s, however, was his most commercially successful era and produced many of his most famous songs.
Over and over again the artists at this fundraiser for music education programs drew from that time period – which quickly grew wearisome, even though many of the individual performances were quite good.
The show began with three consecutive songs from Harvest, beginning with folk singer Joe Purdy’s solo acoustic rendition of “Out On The Weekend” that didn’t veer far from the original. The house band, led by former Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell, then came out to accompany Joan Osborne on a pleasant version of “Old Man” that never quite took off. Bettye LaVette finished off the trio of songs by revisiting her 1972 powerful, soul-infused cover of “Heart Of Gold.” “I had to be the only black chick in Harlem singing ‘Heart of Gold’ back then,” she said, drawing the only laugh of the evening.
Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis was the only artist of the night to truly channel the spirit of Crazy Horse. Backed by a tight three-piece band, he played a fuzzed-out “Cortez The Killer” that was absolutely smoking. Nada Surf revived a more obscure Zuma track, “Barstool Blues,” that didn’t crackle with the same energy as Mascis, but still got the job done.
Beyond those two moments, the first two-thirds of the show was dominated by folky material. Shawn Colvin did a lovely “Birds” with Campbell on the mandolin, The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard tackled “Tell Me Why” and Gomez’s Ben Ottewell played a solo acoustic “Unknown Legend.” Mason Jennings dug deep into Young’s catalog and found 2000’s “Red Sun” from Silver and Gold, but he was unable to elevate the deeply mediocre tune.
Things picked up when Juliana Hatfield and Evan Dando led the house band through a lightning-quick “Cinnamon Girl” that featured their near-flawless two part harmony. Aaron Neville found the gospel hidden inside “Helpless,” and Jakob Dylan had the crowd singing along to the CSNY version of “Southern Man.” Pete Yorn briefly slowed everything down with a limp, solo acoustic “Rockin’ In The Free World,” but The Roots came out right afterwards to lift the show back up. With vocal help from Amber and Haley from Dirty Projects, singer/guitarist Captain Kirk lead a stripped-down Roots line-up through a jammed out, funkified “Down By The River” that got the crowd on their feet for the first time of the night.
Most of the evening’s performers came back onstage for a sing-along “Ohio,” followed by a sloppy “Hey Hey, My My.” Bettye LaVette clearly had never heard the song before, but that didn’t stop her from doing her best to sing the “This is the story of Johnny Rotten” verse. The show may have not reached the highs of previous Carnegie Hall tributes to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and The Who – but it raised $75,000 for a lot of good causes and everybody seemed to have a great time. Sometimes that has to be enough.