We’ve seen Neil Young the hard rocker. Neil the angry protest singer. Neil the rockabilly crooner. Neil the grunge guitarist.
For two nights at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium last August, audiences got the comforting, friendly, reflective Neil, a pair of shows distilled by Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme into the concert film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
The film captures the 60-year-old Young in grand form alongside such longtime musical comrades as Emmylou Harris, steel guitarist Ben Keith, keyboardist Spooner Oldham and Young’s wife, Pegi, on backup vocals.
At the Ryman, Young debuted his latest album, “Prairie Wind,” a return to the country-rock style of his beloved albums “Harvest” and “Harvest Moon.” Coping with a potentially fatal brain aneurysm diagnosed in spring 2005, Young wrote a cycle of songs examining mortality, the loss of loved ones and his own fleeting presence in the revolving stage of music.
Young underwent surgery, but at the time he recorded the album, he was working under a shadow.
“I think when you’re thinking that you may not be able to perform, that there’s an unknown,” Young told The Associated Press in an interview alongside director Demme. “Most of the time when I’m in there, I feel like, well, this is a record I’m making. I’m going to get this record.
“This time, I was thinking, this may possibly — very unlikely — but there’s a chance that this may be my last record, so, you know, then you want to do the best you can with it. Even more in a way that’s not tangible. What the difference is, I can’t really tell you, but I’m sure the effect was there.”
‘A beautiful old dream concert’Nine of the 10 “Prairie Wind” songs make up the first part of “Heart of Gold,” some accompanied by moving introductions from Young, who informs the audience he’s playing a guitar he bought in the 1970s that belonged to Hank Williams and relates stories of his father, who had recently died after suffering from dementia.
The film’s second half presents Young classics such as “Old Man,” “Harvest Moon,” “Comes a Time,” “The Needle and the Damage Done” and the title song, along with his cover of Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds.”
A 12-piece string ensemble, a horn section and a 10-member vocal choir accompany Young and his friends on some songs.
“The idea evolved of doing a beautiful old dream concert,” said Demme, an Oscar winner for “The Silence of the Lambs” who also directed the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” “We wanted it to feel a little bit like it’s Neil Young’s dream concert, his dream venue, his dream fellow performers.”
Demme and Young are old friends themselves. They first collaborated in 1993, when Demme asked Young to write and perform a song for his film “Philadelphia,” starring Tom Hanks. Young contributed the song “Philadelphia” for the soundtrack.
After Sundance, “Heart of Gold” opens Feb. 10 in a handful of theaters, expanding to more cities in the following weeks.
Young said his surgery seems to have corrected his problem and that his health is fine.
“Knock on wood, everything’s good,” Young said. “I feel strong, I feel good. I feel just like I did before. I feel like my life is progressing in a natural way, but I just have another feeling now that I’m not sure about the things that I never used to think about. I used to be so sure that everything was all right. ...
“I’m looking forward to every day and having a great time, but I just don’t have the illusion that everybody’s safe, that I’m safe, and that everybody else is safe. I just don’t believe that anymore.”
With “Prairie Wind” behind him and “Heart of Gold” headed to theaters, Young said he so far has only tinkered with a few notes that could lead to his next album.
“I have a couple of melodies in my head, guitar progressions, and a few words that don’t seem to be going anywhere right now,” Young said. “I’ll have to wait until the muse kind of tells me what I’m doing. I’m at the stage where I really don’t know where I’m going.
“That’s fine. It’s good to not know, because once you know, you’re possessed. You’re possessed once you know. You have to get there. You have to do it. It’s got you. So in a way, this is like a vacation time.”