Hal Willner's Neil Young Project, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver on Thursday night
It took three hours, but the crowd who packed the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver for Hal Willner's Neil Young Project finally got on its feet. It happened at precisely 11:00 p.m. PST, after Elvis Costello rocked the house with Cowgirl in the Sand. Sure, those three hours included an intermission and the show started a bit late, but the point is, the Neil Young Project was missing something - and it wasn't just Neil Young (no, he didn't show). It had the elements: gifted musicians, fantastic performers, Young's catalogue. But the magic was simply missing.
It's hard to know why. Was it the venue, more suited to opera than rock and roll? Was it the crowd, too middle-aged and comfortable in the cushy seats? Was everyone simply worn out from watching too much sports?
The Neil Young Project is the brainchild of U.S. music producer Hal Willner. He's known for this sort of thing: gather big names (and not-so-big names), put them on-stage in various configurations and have them pay tribute to an iconic artist through music. Lou Reed was the show's original superstar attraction. Ron Sexsmith and members of Broken Social Scene were also big draws. Costello and Emily Haines and James Shaw of Metric were just announced this week (and thank goodness; one shudders to think what it would have been like without them). For the final bow, there were more than 30 artists on stage.
What's hard to figure out is why the show failed overall when there were so many spectacular individual moments.
Haines and Shaw gave a sparkly performance of A Man Needs a Maid (it was great to hear a woman sing it). The amazing Eric Mingus wowed the crowd first by delivering a gospel version of For the Turnstiles and later by turning On the Way Home into a spoken word gem. Reed did a phenomenal version of Helpless (he had us at "There is a town in North Ontario"). There was more: Jenni Muldaur's performance of Harvest, accompanied by Reed's guitar playing; Muldaur (man, she was good) joining Sexsmith for Star of Bethlehem; Teddy Thompson's gorgeous I Believe in You (yes, accompanied by Muldaur).
But despite Joan as Policewoman's constant thrilling presence on violin and microphone, acting as a sort of M.C., and Julie Doiron's bouncy best efforts, the on-stage feel was often flat. Jason Collett's early attempts at cutting loose - he stood on a stool - felt just a little awkward and forced. For some reason, this format wasn't going to let him have a good time.
There was little attempt to engage the audience and almost no banter, although Costello did wish the crowd a "Happy Olympics" and Collett did try to get things going. "Ladies and gentlemen, you've been sitting on your asses all night long," he said. "You've been very well behaved. It's very Canadian of you." He was being polite, but I don't think he meant it as a compliment. How Canadian of him.
Somehow - let's call it years of experience, phenomenal talent, confidence and a genuine love for the music - Costello turned the night around in the last half-hour. After Cowgirl in the Sand there was a rocking version of Cinnamon Girl and then Costello and Reed were on stage together for F---' Up - wow. The crowd stayed on its feet - right through to the somewhat forced (but still kind of lovely) sing-along ending of Only Love Can Break Your Heart.
There were some minor logistical problems Thursday night: feedback, other sound issues, long pauses between songs, musicians starting with the wrong sheet music or on the wrong key, and a couple of rough performances by Vashti Bunyan (unfortunately one of them was After the Gold Rush - ruining what should have been a highlight of the show). But that was not the poison.
The musical mishmash produced some phenomenal moments, but they weren't enough; they failed to fuse to make this the legendary night so many fans had hoped for when they fought their way through jubilant post-hockey crowds and into the theatre. (Was that the problem? High expectations?) The night began inexplicably with the theme song from Alfred Hitchcock's TV show. I don't think Willner meant it this way, but the Hitchcock, as it turned out, was a good fit. The Neil Young Project has produced a mystery: why did this show, with its great potential, fail to truly capture the audience? Kind of scary, too.