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Neil Young shows what Unplugged was meant to be

Neil Young Unplugged
March 10.

By Eric Oliver
In 1979, Neil Young and Crazy Horse released the album Rust Never Sleeps, which answered the question "Has your band begun to rust?". The album's two sides were like two brothers, obviously related but each with a personality of their own. Side one was a one-man acoustic guitar/harmonica jam in the style of early Dylan that inspired such albums as Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska and John Mellencamp's The Lonesome Jubilee. Side two was a kicking, fighting child who screamed, "I don't care if you like the way I dress or the way I look because my music is going to knock you on your butt." This brother became known as "grunge" and has resurfaced in Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Nirvana.

Billed as the "Godfather of Grunge," Neil Young performed on the March 10 MTV Unplugged. As in the "Live Rust" concert tour, the show began with just Neil, a guitar, and a harmonica. Opening with "Old Laughing Lady," the bearded, graying Young, sporting an oversized black leather jacket, rolled into the classic "Mr. Soul." Finishing his solo guitar set with "World on a String" and "Pocahontas," his only song in the show from the Rust album, he donned a pair of black Terminator glasses and stepped up to the piano for "Stringman" and "Like a Hurricane." Hearing the latter with just piano and harmonica accompaniment was similar to hearing Eric Clapton's Unplugged "Layla" for the first time. For many old Young fans who have probably heard "Hurricane" dozens of times, this version was different, yet familiar, and was one of the highlights of the show. He finished the first set with the popular "Needle and the Damage Done," a biting ballad of a junkie's life eroding before him.

Soon afterwards, he was joined on-stage by Nils Lofgren and backup singers Nicolette Larson and his sister Astrid Young for an emotional version of "Helpless." After a break, the band grew as the musicians from the latest album, Harvest Moon, joined him for the title song. For the first time in the show the performance nearly mimicked the studio version of the song, which was effective only because of its relatively recent release. "Transformer Man" was a better indication of the style of performance we could expect. Born on Neil's 1981 Trans album, his unfortunate attempt at techno-rock, the song showed much more class and style as an acoustic, harmonic story of love in the early 1980's.

The surprise of the show was Lofgren, who accompanied Young with an accordion throughout the concert. He seemed as natural with the accordion as he did playing guitar alongside Bruce Springsteen as Steve Van Zandt's replacement. His playing stayed in the background, was never overpowering, and made an exciting combination with Neil's acoustic guitar and harmonica.

In a style most Young fans could appreciate, the remainder of the concert was filled with less familiar, emotionally packed songs, including "Unknown Legend," "Look Out for My Love," "Long May You Run," and finishing with "From Hank to Hendrix."

Although the Unplugged series is one of the best ideas MTV has ever come up with, some of the bands featured were just not meant to shine in this format (I won't mention any names, Bret Michaels). Throughout this concert, it seemed Unplugged was created for Young, with respect to his Harvest and Rust Never Sleeps days. If you missed it, find someone who has taped it, slip it into the VCR, and enjoy the ride.