Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017
Last night’s Neil Fest was a marathon that ran for over three hours at the Granada. Rare was a lull on this night of all Neil Young covers with nearly two dozen acts performing, including Norah Jones and Boz Scaggs and the Flatlanders. The finale was a surprise appearance by Leon Bridges.
The event was organized by Best Fest, which throws concerts celebrating the work of legendary, living musicians. Tom Petty and Bob Dylan have been among their celebrants. Neil Fest was a two-date affair that began in Austin on Saturday night and doubled as a benefit for Refuge Foundation for the Arts.
The show at the Granada was longer than its sister in Austin, with a total of 32 songs performed. And the historic venue was nearly packed by 8 p.m., before a single note had been played. It was quite clear everyone on the lineup was just as psyched to be there, and a longtime fan of Young’s.
The house band for the night was the Cabin Down Below Band, with bassist Austin Scaggs playing the role of emcee. The setlist itself, heavy on Young’s solo records from the ’70s, would have pleased record mogul David Geffen. He sued Young in the ’80s for making records that he said didn’t sound like Neil Young records.
Harvest, Tonight’s the Night, After the Gold Rush and On the Beach were heavily represented. The first few songs, “Come on Baby, Let’s Go Downtown,” “Human Highway” and “Flags of Freedom,” were easy rockers. The renditions weren’t bad, but they also weren’t mind-blowing.
The evening took a turn for the better when Eric Pulido of Midlake and BNQT got up to sing protest anthem “Ohio.” At first he looked nervous, and he almost greeted the crowd with “Howdy, Denton!” before quickly correcting himself. But once he’d gotten out the first few words of the song he found its groove.
“Best Fest has the perfect ingredients for an awesome event,” Pulido told the Observer a few days before the show. “Amazing artists and folks get together to sing timeless songs from a legendary artist’s catalog, to raise money for a great cause. This year’s Neil Fest is no exception, celebrating one of the best ever while featuring so many talented and lovely people. It’s such an honor and joy to join in on the fun.”
All of the obvious choices made it onto Sunday’s set list, like “Heart of Gold,” “Down by the River” and “Cinnamon Girl,” but there were also lots of deep cuts such as “Too Far Gone” and “Star of Bethlehem.” Oddly, “Rockin’ in the Free World” was not played. Looks like Pearl Jam has unofficial dibs on covering that tune.
Jeff Klein, who fronts Austin-based My Jerusalem, gave the first truly head-turning performance of the night. He sang “After the Gold Rush,” and shared with the crowd that he’d lost his virginity to the song. His self-deprecation earned hearty laughs from the audience. Klein didn’t try to ape Young’s voice on the track; instead he brought to it his own haunted voice, which has been on three excellent My Jerusalem records so far.
“I remember the first time I really dug into Neil Young I was working at a record store in New York and someone brought in a used copy of Decade,” Klein says. “A greatest hits record that was a triple album. Think about that. His music hit me as both simple and complex at the same time, with songs that went from hypnotizing and beautiful to woolly and edgy. It made me wanna pick up a guitar and play those songs, and that’s exactly what I did.”
Only one act, Wesley Geiger and the Texas Gentlemen, had the feel of a tribute band. Local singer-songwriter Geiger was a dead ringer for Harvest- and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere-era Neil Young with his long hair and facial expressions. The band’s take on “Tonight’s the Night,” with ace drummer McKenzie Smith, was on point.
James Petralli of White Denim gave nervous yet urgent performances of two songs back-to-back, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and “Walk On.” Paul Cauthen at first seemed out of place singing “Down By the River” in a deep baritone, but by the middle of it, he let his voice rise to the stratosphere. The Flatlanders did an extraordinary take on “Old Man,” with Joe Ely handling most of the lead vocals.
Alison Mosshart, who once fronted a pop-punk band called Discount before playing the same role in the Kills and the Dead Weather, gave a husky but sweet performance of “Birds.” Afterward, she was joined by Charlie Sexton for a few songs. Jonathan Tyler did a reverent rendition of “Harvest Moon” and then took to the ruckus of “Revolution Blues.”
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The headliners were what what really sold this show for the mostly-over-40 crowd who stood by loyally until the three-hour show came to an end around 11:30 p.m. Norah Jones, who provided backing vocals on a number of songs in the first part of the show, later performed enjoyable versions of “Comes a Time” and “Don’t Be Denied.” Boz Scaggs, with a red Gibson SG strapped on, perfected the midnight soul of “On the Beach” and jammy “Southern Man.”
The finale was “Helpless,” which had every performer come back out to the stage, to be led by the unannounced guest Leon Bridges. His voice was the sound of a true legend trapped in a younger man’s body; the perfect way to honor the legacy of Neil Young.
“Come On Baby, Let’s Go Downtown,” featuring the Cabin Down Below Band
“Human Highway,” featuring the Candles
“Flags of Freedom,” featuring Eve Monsees
“Cinnamon Girl,” featuring the Midnight Stroll
“Star of Bethlehem,” featuring Carson McHone
“Don’t Cry No Tears,” featuring Robert Ellis
“Ohio,” featuring Eric Pulido
“After the Gold Rush,” featuring Jeff Klein
“The Losing End (When You’re On),” featuring Nikki Lane
“Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” featuring James Petralli
“Walk On,” featuring James Petralli
“Throw Your Hatred Down,” featuring Adam Busch
“Down By the River,” featuring Paul Cauthen
“I Believe in You,” featuring Erika Wennerstrom
“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” featuring Erika Wennerstrom
“Harvest,” featuring Cody Chisel
“Too Far Gone,” featuring the Flatlanders and Terry Allen
“Old Man,” featuring the Flatlanders and Terry Allen
“Tonight’s the Night,” featuring the Texas Gentlemen
“Birds,” featuring Alison Mosshart
“Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” featuring Alison Mosshart and Charlie Sexton
“Like a Hurricane,” featuring Alison Mosshart and Charlie Sexton
“Harvest Moon,” featuring Jonathan Tyler
“Revolution Blues,” featuring Jonathan Tyler
“Comes a Time,” featuring Norah Jones
“Don’t Be Denied,” featuring Norah Jones
“Unknown Legend,” featuring Shakey Graves
“Out on the Weekend,” featuring Shakey Graves
“On the Beach,” featuring Boz Scaggs
“Southern Man,” featuring Boz Scaggs
“Heart of Gold,” featuring Nikki Lane and Jonathan Tyler
“Helpless,” featuring Leon Bridges, Norah Jones and Cory Chisel