Neil Young's 'Return to Greendale' Proves He Was Right All Along

BY Vish KhannaPublished Nov 5, 2020

Back in 2003, Neil Young brought his purposeful vision for Greendale to life with an ambitious, theatrical tour that touched down twice in Toronto. The second of those shows, on September 4, is captured here, both as a record and a film, and the power and prescience of this document is undeniable.

Joined by Crazy Horse, Young had more in store for fans than a simple concert, in support of his then-latest album. Complete with stage productions and actors lip-synching to the narrative songs being sung, Greendale — as a record and stage show — was an uncompromising artistic statement.

Based on the fictional story of a young, purposeful environmentalist from a small farm town and her encounters with family members, authority figures, heartless corporations, police and aligned peers, Greendale found Young presenting his own ecological and sociocultural concerns in a relatively straight-ahead and jammy musical manner, while also transforming a rock show into a high-concept play.

The sound of the band is remarkable and Young is fiery and dynamic, playing electric and acoustic guitar, harmonica, organ, and feeding his voice through both clean and treated mics. Crazy Horse are there for him like only they can be, with bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina locked in tight, and guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, a normally lively stage presence, instead seated to play electric piano and keys.

They play the anthemic songs in album sequence and the set launches and lumbers. Being in the room for this particular show at the time, one could feel a building tension within an audience hoping for hits and instead, encountering a thematic (and relatively unknown because it was new) song cycle. For some of us there though, it was truly exhilarating to find Young, pushing himself and his fans to indulge in fresh, beautiful songs like "Double E," "Bandit," and "Sun Green," instead of delving into his musical history (which did occur in the encore, not included here).

This record and its accompanying film are full of hard truths — about institutional negligence and malpractice when it comes to addressing and combating climate change instead of profiteering at the expense of our shared environment. This multi-generational story seemed aimed both at boomers and their heirs, emphasizing that the stewardship of Earth is a progressive, forward thinking concern that all of us should embrace.

If these sentiments still resonate, it's because Young has been singing about such things forever, before and since Greendale, and so those who actually contemplate this album and its live counterpart on their artistic merits might well recognize them, as equal to anything else in his stirring, outspoken back catalogue.

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