Neil Young has always had an eye on his past. 'Prairie Wind', the album he recorded in 2005, is deeply sentimental. But then the Canadian legend wrote and recorded most of the songs between discovering he had a potentially fatal brain aneurysm and subsequently undergoing surgery to fix it. If you can't look back when you think you're about to shuffle off the mortal coil, when can you?
Jonathan Demme's no-frills concert film documents two gigs Young and his band played at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium (home for years to the Grand Ole Opry) to premiere the album. Shot on August 18 and 19 in 2005 and featuring songs from the new record as well as a clutch from the past, Neil Young: Heart Of Gold was always going to be worth watching. With its stage, its act and the circumstances surrounding the performances (on top of everything, Young's father had passed away two months before), the production could hardly be anything but loaded. Bits are wonderful, songs played with so much feeling they make you tingle.
The first half of the film concentrates on tunes from 'Prairie Wind' before a costume change brings out old classics from Young's back catalogue, dwelling mainly on the pastoral albums 'Harvest' and its sequel, 'Harvest Moon'. The songs are about big things - childhood, death, love, God, injustice - vast landscapes brought to a point by the singer's falsetto. It's a remarkable instrument. Some of the highest notes are even more of a squeeze now, but that peerless emotional clarity always came from the cracks and impurities of the voice. And when the air gets too thin Young's got a heck of a band backing him up, including Ben Keith on slide guitar, Spooner Oldham on keys, Ricky Rosas on bass and Chad Cromwell on drums. The Memphis Horns make the odd appearance, as does a string section and a gospel choir, while Emmylou Harris and Young's wife Pegi sit in with the backing singers.
The show's only bum note comes from the sentimentality of some of the 'Prairie Wind' material. 'Falling Off The Face Of The Earth' is plain sappy - "I want to thank you/I just want to tell you/ That you mean the world to me." It doesn't help, either, that one of the two painted backdrops sets the band in an old log cabin complete with comfy chair and raging fire. There's even a cat. And then when the old campaigner wants to sting, the lyrical barbs aren't as sharp as they used to be.
Right on cue, the first song taken from the second concert is 'I Am A Child'. Written in Young's Buffalo Springfield days it features the couplet, "The sky is blue and so is the sea/What is the colour when black is burned?" And then bang! 'Harvest Moon', 'Heart Of Gold', 'Old Man' and 'The Needle And The Damage Done' come one after the other. It's magnificent, and it only dawns on you in the last few minutes that Young's eyes are sometimes the spit of Larry Hagman's, and that Michael Jackson's surgeons must have a picture of Emmylou Harris pinned up on the theatre wall.