It’s New Orleans Jazz Festival 2009 and from 50 feet away seeing Neil Young is a spiritual experience. With every bar of music, he’s still feeling it, and he makes the audience feel it in turn.
Because he has long sung in falsetto, Young’s voice has largely survived intact — clear, sometimes shrill, but always full of deep emotion — and his bare-knuckled lead guitar (he doesn’t use a pick) is almost transcendent.
It wasn’t Neil Young’s first performance in New Orleans. That came as a member of Buffalo Springfield on April 18, 1968.
Dave Clements, owner of the Circle Bar and Snake and Jake’s, says seeing Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills and Neil Young at Loyola Field House that night was a “life-changing experience. I became the most rabid Buffalo Springfield fan on the planet for about 10 years.”
Clements and his friend Grant Cooper attended the concert for different reasons. “Grant was the political rabble-rouser. I don’t remember it being a political event for me. Pretty much everything for Grant was political in those days,” says Clements. Cooper was drawn to the band by the megahit “For What it’s Worth,” an anthem for the antiwar movement of the late ’60s.
“Everyone was there to see the Beach Boys, and we were literally the only ones standing on our chairs and clapping,” says Cooper. “Buffalo Springfield represented the counterculture and FM radio was playing them — the AOR (Album Oriented Rock) stations.”
Clements went out and bought Buffalo Springfield Again.
“I wore that record out,” he says. “I was a bass player. I learned the entire album on bass. I also went out and bought a fringed jacket. My mother, rest her soul, had to listen to me learning each and every song on that album ad nauseam and attempting to sing.”
Neil Young heard the call to New Orleans early. He and longtime friend Randy Bachman listened to New Orleans radio stations flowing over the flat plains into Winnipeg, Canada.
“I’d say, ‘Neil, were you listening to the radio on Wednesday night? Did you hear that song by Slim Harpo? Do you know how to do the guitar thing?’” recalls Bachman in the 2002 Young biography Shakey. “‘Cause I’d actually have my guitar in the middle of the night by the radio and hope they’d play the same song night after night. You’d try and figure out the blues chords, you’d try to scribble down some of the lyrics.”
The years have passed but the music lingers. Young, now 66, will bring his magic back to New Orleans at Voodoo, no doubt creating yet another generation of fans.