It’s nothing new for Neil Young to cross the country performing songs from a not-yet-released album — the songs for “Rust Never Sleeps,” for example, were recorded on the tour long before the LP’s bow. To set up his next Reprise disc, “Greendale,” Young has gone theatrical, bringing along dozens of actors, a set, animated projections and films to tell the story of a family, the evolution of a young girl and the murder of a cop. Ultimately, “Greendale’s” story is one of communal awakening. Of all Young’s experiments — including ’80s excursions into blues, rockabilly, country, electronics — this theatrical diversion is his most sound. And while the visuals are an often fascinating multimedia melange, the clarity of the piece owes more to the strength of the songs than to the add-ons.
“Greendale” opens with Young and the band Crazy Horse downstage, a front porch at rear stage left. Grandpa (played by Larry Cragg) and cousin Jed (Pearl Jam road manager Eric Johnson) read the paper and chat as Young spells out the grander goals of “Greendale”: “singing songs for freedom/singing songs for love/singing songs for depressed angels.” Grandpa, the character who most often dispenses advice in the songs and lip synchs as Young sings, is the big-picture thinker here, noting late in the musical “a little Mayberry living can go a long way.”
As soon as the “Double E” lyric “Change comes slow in the country” is sung, things do begin to change: A police officer is gunned down, a widow and a town grieve, Grandpa falls ill, and young people find their calling as artists and activists; it all ends in an everybody-sing-and-dance “Hair”-like closer with a chorus of “He had to save Mother Earth.”
Young doesn’t always go directly from point A to point B in “Greendale,” but that’s hardly a surprise: He has been the rare rock songwriter unafraid of ambiguity (does anyone really understand the verses of “Sugar Mountain”?). Even his detail-packed linear stories have lines of vagueness. And while it’s hard to ascertain Young’s ultimate intentions after a single listening, it appears there’s a greater metaphor at work here involving family values, hippie ideology and ecology.
In terms of its concerns and construction, “Greendale” has a cosmic connection with Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” though “Greendale” is hardly fit for Broadway.
Young takes a few smacks at people selling a corrupted bill of goods, such as the government and the concert’s promoter, Clear Channel Entertainment. But many of the songs are invested with a significant level of hope. “Someday you’ll find everything you’re looking for,” Young (and Grandpa) sing of artist Earl (who can’t sell any of his paintings) in the evening’s lone acoustic number, “Bandit.”
“Greendale,” set for release Aug. 19 with a bonus DVD of an acoustic show from Dublin, should stand as the most melodically and sonically consistent electric work of his career. Most of Young’s albums bounce between electric and acoustic numbers and, although he has had considerable success with all-acoustic, feel-good folk-based albums (“Comes a Time,” “Harvest Moon”), his lone all-electric gem is 1990’s “Ragged Glory.”
“Greendale’s” songs are inordinately melodic and upbeat; Young has long used the electric guitar to rattle the bones (see the albums “Ragged Glory,” “Mirror Ball,” parts of “Rust”), and the quality has suffered when he has eased up on that texture (the albums “Landing on Water” and the recent “Are You Passionate”).
His guitar work as fascinating as ever, Young is toying with pleasant ’60s-influenced riffs, at times resolving them with the big chords he popularized with “Powderfinger” and “Like a Hurricane”; there’s also a nice nod to his blues hero Jimmy Reed. He adds pleasing solo lines to every tune, natch, swinging from an echo of the ancient Beatles instrumental “Cry for a Shadow” to the bite of his own “Like a Hurricane.”
The sound is resolutely spare. Frank Sampedro doesn’t appear on the record, though for this tour he is adding very light touches on the keyboards. The guitar work, until the band launches into a half-dozen oldies after “Greendale’s” 10 tunes, is all Young.
The “Greendale” portion of the evening, which clocks in at about 100 minutes, is separated from the older-works section with a clip from the 1979 film “Rust Never Sleeps.” On Tuesday, the Horse exploded with “My My Hey Hey,” “Sedan Delivery” and “Pocahontas” — a trio of tunes from “Rust,” one of the best and most significant albums of the 1970s. The fire and verve of those songs hasn’t diminished an ounce over the years, an effect enhanced by the band rattling about in a thunderous cacophony that worked as a fugue from one tune to another. Set closed with another hard charging threesome — “F*!#in’ Up,” “Cinnamon Girl” and “Rockin’ in the Free World” — that segued into “Taps,” a signoff more for the town and people of Greendale than anything else onstage.
Young makes another Southern California sweep in two months, playing Santa Barbara Bowl on Sept. 17, San Diego Sports Arena on Sept. 19 and Verizon Amphitheater in Irvine on Sept. 20. A companion DVD should be in stores around that time.
Lucinda Williams opened the evening in a mellow and craggy vein, mining material from her latest album, the stunning “World Without Tears” (Lost Highway), as well as her last two discs “Essence” and “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” Similar to Young, she made the evening tonally consistent, though much easier to digest.