Nashville - Two nights before his first full show since his brain aneurysm in March, Neil Young paces the fabled Ryman Auditorium stage like a caged beast - or an annoyed bandleader.
There are more people on the hallowed boards of what was once the Grand Ole Opry than in the room as Young prepares to premiere his stunning new album, Prairie Wind. He'll be playing it twice over two nights for hand-picked crowds, and it's being filmed by Jonathan Demme for a spring-release concert film.
"Why can't you play it like on the record?" he wants to know from his band. It includes key players from his legendary Harvest album who have also joined him on the new disc, which is as good as that much-loved work.
"And Karl, I think you're hitting the tambourine in exactly the wrong spot every single time," Young announces to long-time associate and legendary loose cannon Karl Himmel. But Young likes a little creative chaos, which is why he still works with his pal. During the clumsy climax to Barrie's Live 8, as Canada's rock elite stumbled through an exciting but confused version of Rockin In The Free World, a laughing Young turned to Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy and said, "Isn't this funny?"
Back at the Ryman a couple of days later, Young is all smiles.
"It's like being inside a giant guitar in here," he says of the old Opry's fantastic acoustics. I don't need him to remind me that the room was once a church; I'm sitting by myself in a front-row pew that only starts to hurt my butt in the last minutes of the three-hour-plus show. (The next night Meryl Streep is an aisle-mate, up and down on her feet as she enthusiastically takes in the show).
Young looks like an elegant riverboat gambler in his classy western suit and broad hat. He and the band have been "styled" by Sergio Leone's wardrobe master, and the ladies wear matching gowns. Legendary pedal steel player Ben Keith, soul songwriter Spooner Oldham, Young's performer wife, Pegi, and Emmylou Harris all look dapper in front of the various dust-blown Prairie Wind backdrops in a show that features the new album in its entirety, followed by a string of hits that have never sounded better.
Young wrote most of the record between the discovery of his aneurysm and the surgery to correct it, recording the disc in Nashville after leaving the hospital. There's lots of reflection, and it's clearly the album of an "old man," but there isn't a drop of near-deathbed earnestness or frightened repentance.
Canadians who hoot every time Helpless is played will be thrilled at the number of Canuck references on the new disc. And, yeah, it's fun to hear him sing of driving the Trans-Canada Highway on his way to Nashville and remembering his Canadian prairie home. Tales of Young's troubled relationship with his journalist father, Scott, who died recently after battling dementia, are well documented, but on Prairie Wind he makes peace with his "daddy" and fondly reminisces about the challenging man. Young tears up setting the scene for a song about family singalongs that featured his dad, his uncle Bob and his grandmother.
He makes the rest of the room misty-eyed when he sings Here For You.
"I used to write love songs for silly girls," says Young, then turns to smile at his wife onstage. "Well, maybe I've got a few of them left in me, too, but this one's for someone else."
It proves to be a touching love letter to his 21-year-old daughter as she readies to leave home. "It's my empty-nester song. It's a new genre - might even have a new radio station."
He picks up a battered old guitar with the wood worn through to play his next song.
"I bought this guitar 35 years ago from a friend. It used to be Hank Williams's. It hasn't been here in this place since 1952. It's nice to bring it home."
Harris joins Young to sing This Old Guitar on the instrument that hasn't been in the Opry since Williams was banned from playing there.
He closes the first half, ably assisted by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, with a song that was a late addition to the album and may prove to be his Imagine.
"I don't usually sing about God or religion," says Young, "but there are some things going on in churches in this country that I don't agree with. There are songs being sung there like God Bless America that don't have any place in church."
He pauses and then mutters, "Maybe that's just the Canadian in me," to huge applause. When God Made Me is a gorgeous song that magnificently deconstructs religious extremism. He premiered this song at Live 8.
Young shows no signs of ill health, and his voice has never sounded better, a fact he demonstrates with unadorned solo versions of I Am A Child and The Damage Done in the second half. And when he sings a killer version of Old Man, with Keith delivering the same haunting pedal steel part he played on the disc, it doesn't seem ironic that the singer is now the old man instead of the young one marvelling at him. It just seems part of the process. Aging, after all, is the gift of a well-lived life.
At the post-gig after-party, Streep raves about Young and the show, but her 20-year-old son is the biggest fan in the family. And that's no doubt how Young would want it - able to satisfy long-time fans, passionately enjoyed by young ones and doing some of his best work ever 40 years into a stellar career.