The population of Omemee (approx. 1,300) likely doubled on Friday night (Dec. 1) when Neil Young came “home” to perform a live-streamed solo acoustic concert at Coronation Hall for about 180 invited guests. An estimated 2,000 more locals and visitors flooded into the “town in north Ontario,” the one he sings about in 1970’s “Helpless,” 80 miles northeast of his real birthplace, Toronto.
The main street was closed down and a fenced off viewing party was held next to the Hall; it was outfitted with bales of hay, white-lit Christmas trees and string lights, a hot chocolate station, and old “wacky” TVs, as Young later called them, to watch the stream on CTV.ca and iHeartRadio.ca. It was on Facebook outside of Canada.
Those who couldn’t get in could also watch en masse at the Omemee Curling Centre and Omemee branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.
About 50 people were let into the show last-minute, which was produced by Bell Media, in partnership with Young’s Shakey Pictures, and directed by his girlfriend Daryl Hannah.
Tickets and t-shirts were $40 each (CAD) and proceeds went to the Scott Young Public School — named after his late father, a sports journalist and prolific novelist who bought his first home in Omemee in 1949, when Neil was four.
The “sleepy little place,” as Young referred to it in his memoir Shakey, is located on the Trans-Canada Highway — one of the longest routes in the world that cuts through all 10 Canadian provinces.
Young’s childhood home is just a short walk from Coronation Hall. The two-acre properly went up for sale again in 2016 for $299,900 (CAD); the realtor would show potential buyers photos of Young in the house when he dropped by for a nostalgic peek in the ’90s. Scott Young retired in the village in 1992, and the school was named in his honor in 1993. He passed away in 2005, a year after moving to Kingston, Ont.
Leanne Ferguson, 48, lives right next door to the hoopla. She wasn’t going to the concert, but was enjoying the bustle in what she and neighbor Dave Ellis, 60, call a “quaint little” town. What usually happens in Coronation Hall? “Not a lot,” she says. “They have meetings. Church groups and other types. City business, and there have been some parties, like on New Year’s, but this is probably the most excitement.”
Ellis, a wildlife photographer, caught some snaps of Young and Hannah on Friday afternoon and the previous day. “It was really hard to get pictures of them. You had to be fast. SUV pulled up and it’s out and straight in the Hall. You had about two seconds to get a shot. Security is very tight. This is my first paparazzi,” he laughed. “It has been fun.”
Police shut the streets at 6 p.m. local time, which until then had been heavy with rush hour highway traffic. The crowd of hopefuls and curious got longer. One man entertained them on acoustic guitar with Young songs. A bungalow on the side street, decked out with a blowup Santa and snowman, kept its garage door open and blasted Young’s music.
The smattering of local businesses dealt with the foot traffic, including the Subway sandwich shop inside a convenience store, with one staff member expressing some worry about handling orders after the concert ended. Omemee is not used to this.
While the show was originally announced as “somewhere in Canada” as part of iHeartRadio’s Secret Sessions — the location not confirmed until the day of — it was not really a secret: On Nov. 11, Young had hinted as much in a Facebook post about the Dec. 1 release of his new album, The Visitor, and online archives.
“December 1st will be a big day for me. The Visitor will be coming to your town. I will be going to my town.”
Those who were invited — including friends, family (Young’s brother Bob and sister Astrid were spotted), Warner Music Canada and Bell Media execs, teachers from Scott Young Public School, some radio contest winners and more (no media; Billboard got in as a fan) — were given a sheet with the rules: “ATTENTION! NO PHONES! NO PHOTOS! NO RECORDING EQUIPMENT.” No big bags were permitted, no water bottles. No ins and outs.
Warnings to shut off phones — and keep them shut — began a good half hour before the show started. The stage — decorated with a lit-up Home Town sign — was filled with his trusty totem pole, a grand piano, a pump organ (an upright piano below and facing the stage, which he joked were the “butt crack sessions” because he forgot to wear his belt); a tree stump table given to him by First Nations on which he put his assorted harmonicas, water glasses and tea; various guitars, and a tree with branches to hang all his hats.
On the main floor of the venue were a few rows of cushy theatre seats; the rest was standing room only. Upstairs on the balcony were vintage wooden theatre seats.
Young played 90 minutes, wandering around the stage, pondering out loud whether to proceed with certain songs — an endearing, cool way to watch a legend work. He told stories about his guitars (one has a bullet hole), his piano (cost $1500 in 1970 and was 100 years old then, and had been in a fire); and some shout-outs to Etobicoke (a western suburb of Toronto, he used as an umbrella for anywhere listening outside of Omemee).
“I hope the pace isn’t killing the world,” he quipped at one point. “It’s going too fast everywhere else.”
Toward the end, he thanked those involved in making the secret show a success — including Bell Media and his “sweetheart Daryl for putting this whole show together.”
The concert will be available on Canada’s Crave TV in the next week (Bell Media’s version of Netflix). No word on U.S. availability. It is archived on Young’s Facebook page.