Neil Young debuted material from his panoramic “Prairie Wind” album to an appreciative audience last night (Aug. 18) at the first of two shows at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. The set is due Sept. 27 via Reprise.
As previously reported, the invitation-only (save for a few radio station giveaways) Ryman shows are being filmed by director Jonathan Demme for a concert film to be released by Paramount Classics in theaters and on DVD at a date to be determined. The film will be executive produced by Clinica Estetica and Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman’s Playtone.
The near-capacity crowd was treated to a nearly three-hour performance by Young, his first lengthy stage work since recovering from brain surgery to repair an aneurysm last spring. Relaxed and confident, Young engaged in amiable between-song stage patter, name-checking Hank Williams, Faron Young, Nicolette Larson, Vassar Clements and Rufus Thibodeaux.
Referring to the venerated Ryman as a “church of all kinds,” Young delivered stirring renditions of the new songs, conveyed in a sparse, acoustic-based style reminiscent of such classic albums as “Harvest” and “Comes a Time.”
He was backed brilliantly by such longtime collaborators as keyboardist Spooner Oldham, pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, drummers Chad Cromwell and Karl Himmel, bassist Rick Rosas, and guitarist Grant Boatwright, along with Clinton Gregory on fiddle, horn players Tom McGinley and Jimmy Sharp, vocalists Pegi Young, Diana DeWitt, Gary Pigg and Anthony Crawford and special guest Emmylou Harris on guitar and vocals.
At times more than 30 musicians were on the fabled Ryman stage, but the focus was on Young, who sang and played with authority the album’s sprawling themes of family, love, nostalgia and spirituality. Highlights included the anthemic “The Painter” and “No Wonder” (with Keith’s haunting electric dobro), as well as more personal cuts like the wistful “Here For you” and bluesy paternal ode in the title cut.
After a first set of all new material, the second set dug into the back catalog for such favorites as “I Am a Child,” “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “The Needle and the Damage Done” and “Comes a Time.” Also of a note were a rare performance of the hound dog homage “Old King” (preceded by a rambling but strangely touching intro about Young’s dog Elvis) and a show-closing “One of These Days.”