Live review: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Norah Jones, Dave Matthews, CSN, Elton John, Wilco and more pay tribute to Neil Young
Neil Young is hardly the oldest guy in pop music. Accepting the award for MusiCares Person of the Year at Friday’s annual gala at the Los Angeles Convention Center, the 64-year-old musician, philanthropist and activist gazed out at the crowd and somewhat gratefully singled out previous honoree Tony Bennett, who's nearly 20 years his senior. Yet something about Young's music is primordial. His quieter songs often seem as pure as children's rhymes, while his rockers are like ore, hard and gleaming and seemingly dug up from the Earth.
This mineral essence makes Young's music a motherlode for artists who have emerged since Young became a major rock influence in the late 1960s. On Friday, musicians as varied as Keith Urban, Norah Jones, Dave Matthews and the Red Hot Chili Peppers tapped directly into it, leaning into the careening electric guitar rants he created in Buffalo Springfield and with Crazy Horse or blissfully resting within the pristine melodies he wrote as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and in his later solo efforts.
Most of the players gathered to honor Young and to raise money for MusiCares, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences foundation that aids musicians in crisis, applied passion and skill to Young’s vast songbook. Yet with such impeccable source material, only a few really lived up to the advice that Young himself had typed out on a placard that the night’s smartly obnoxious host, Jack Black, held up and eventually auctioned off to an audience member -- “Just do what you want to do, don’t listen to anyone else.”
The night’s most radical reinterpretation came from Ozomatli, who Latinized “Mr. Soul” with congas and brash horns. The Red Hot Chili Peppers also took interesting liberties with the melodramatic “A Man Needs a Maid”; the swirling guitar work of new member Josh Klinghoffer was a highlight.
Several performances uncovered ways that Young himself listened to and learned from others. Harmonizing gently, Jones and Sasha Dobson brought out the Everly Brothers in the yearning “Tell Me Why.” Jason Mraz and Shawn Colvin bantered with the three-member Grooveline Horns to take “Lotta Love” to Motown. And in one of the night’s most thrilling turns, Ben Harper and three female singers made the protest song “Ohio” into a spiritual.
Mostly, though, this night was about Young’s hugely audible influence. Elton John spoke of keeping his neighbors up by blaring Young’s albums in the early 1970s before leading Leon Russell, Sheryl Crow, Neko Case and T-Bone Burnett through a robust version of “Helpless.” Lucinda Williams, joining forces with Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin on “Comes a Time,” didn’t have to explain how her trademark drawl connects to Young’s own homey tenor; it was obvious.
This kind of intimate connection was typical of the night. Matthews and Elvis Costello delivered covers that sounded like outtakes from their own albums. The indie band Wilco, expertly expanding on the tricky changes of Buffalo Springfield’s psychedelic epic “Broken Arrow,” paid its debt to Young for pioneering the kind of woolly experimental rock it now practices.
These connections felt organic, partly because the star-packed roster largely reflected the folk-rock lineage to which Young has so significantly contributed. Of several crossover country acts on hand, only Urban, burning the guitar fretboard in a duet with John Fogerty, made a mark. No R&B artists appeared, nor did any synthesizer-driven acts tackle Young’s most controversial material, from the Kraftwerk-influenced 1982 album “Trans.” The only startling name on the line-up was Josh Groban; the stubble-faced crooner did his best belting out “Harvest Moon.”
Generally, this was a warmhearted family affair, even if Pearl Jam, that band of Young’s favorite sons, was absent. His collaborators David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash were on hand; so was John Mellencamp, who co-founded the Farm Aid charity with Young, and Everest, one of his favorite youngish bands. Dierks Bentley, Lady Antebellum, James Taylor and Jackson Browne also performed; Don Was directed the stellar house band.
The only major disappointment was that Young himself chose to not play. Instead, he promised more music to come. “I just want you to know, I’m working on a new album,” he said.
No doubt, it will sound brand new, and old as the hills.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Elton John and Sheryl Crow on stage at the MusiCares tribute to Neil Young. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times