Hillbilly Highway – All Neil weekend here on the Highway

by Sheldon Birnie

Well, there’s no escaping old Neil Young this week out here on the Hillbilly Highway.

It was the man’s 67th birthday on Monday, and he celebrated by playing the first Canadian date of the Neil Young & Crazy Horse “Alchemy” tour in Vancouver. He hits Pegcity, his old stomping grounds, on Friday. And, to celebrate, the Times Change(d) is hosting it’s annual Neil Fest this weekend, with two nights of Neil tunes starting Friday.

Sure, some of you travellers may not be that into old Neil, and that’s fair enough. Even for a fan like myself, the man’s catalogue is spotty. Then again, no pro has ever batted 1.000, and if they did, there would likely be something fishy about them.

Now, I gotta say, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Neil & The Horse’s earlier release this year, Americana, though it did have a couple moments. And I have yet to pick up the triple-LP Psychedelic Pill, though I do plan on getting my hands on it sooner than later. And I haven’t yet ready Neil new autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, but it’s on the list.

Anyhow, I’m pretty jazzed about the show on Friday. Considering that the Sadies and Los Lobos are opening the show, Neil & the Boys could pretty much jam out distortion for two hours, Arc style, and the night still wouldn’t be wasted.

Considering Neil is still pumping out relatively challenging tunes, and at a pace that has never relented since the days of the 60s when it was unheard of for artists to linger three, four, or even five years between albums, is pretty dang impressive on its own. And the fact that he’s bringing the Horse out for a serious rumble is damn exciting, regardless of whether or not the set is underwhelming or completely mind-blowing.

I saw Neil & the Horse in 2003, touring behind the bizarre concept album Greendale. A driving tale of family, death, drugs, war, and the environment, I’ve given the album plenty of spins, though it’s far from my top ten. Certainly not Neil’s best, far from his worst, and not even his weirdest endeavour, Greendale holds a special place in my heart.

The Greendale tour itself was something else, though. The full album was played start to finish, with actors willing in roles while the band played. Colourful sets were cycled on and off stage, and video flashed throughout. The whole thing is captured on DVD, but I haven’t seen it. It probably pales in comparison to catching it live, in Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre with just shy of 3,000 other Neil faithful. After Greendale, the band did a tight 45 minute set of deep Horse cuts, followed by the requisite “Rockin in the Free World” and “Tonight’s The Night” for the encore.

I made that trip in a rusty old van with my pal Simon from Kelowna. It was a great trip, in & out over the Malahat in the dead of West Coast winter. When we got back to Kelowna, my pal jumped on a plane and headed south. I haven’t seen him since, though he occasionally sends me updates from around the globe; eating fried cobra in Thailand, exploring the Deep South.

I’ve seen Neil since, with CSNY and again at the MTS Centre, sans The Horse. While those shows were fine, there’s something about The Horse that gets in your blood.

If you can’t make the gig on Friday, or you’d rather enjoy the close company of good people, head over (early) to the Times Change(d). According to proprietor John Scoles, Neil Fest has been growing in popularity annually, so it’ll likely be a miracle if you can get in after midnight. Local guitar whizz Chris Carmichael will be playing both nights, while James & The Giants join him Saturday to play After the Goldrush front to back.

And so here I sit, enjoying a run through Greendale for the first time in years, thinking back on the days that used to be. Busking in Kelowna in a pair of patched up Levi’s for liquor money, butchering “Thrasher” and “Hey Hey My My”; tender moments on late summer nights listening to “Helpless”; getting really out there with “Like a Hurricane” on headphones and a healthy dose of Electric. This week it’s all Neil out here on the Highway, friends. Take it or leave it.

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