It’s more than a little fitting that Neil Young chooses to revisit his Greendale project right around the 2020 presidential election. The themes he pursued in the original 2003 album, in all its various formats, are not only right in line with the socially-conscious approach he’s maintained in recent years, but also reflect more widespread concerns about corporate business practices, the media and the environment that have risen as pertinent issues in the interim. Add to that the fact he and The Horse only did a single tour in support of the record and the time certainly is right for some additional exposure.
And yet, notwithstanding the details afforded by the ancillary content titled Inside Greendale—studio footage combined with fictional cinematic imagery—watching the concert film necessarily begs the question of whether the Canadian rock icon might have conceived and executed the whole project a bit differently. For one thing, even with the panoramic video screens behind the band on stage, it’s not exactly the stunning high-tech likes of a latter-day Pink Floyd/Roger Waters production; at times, in fact, especially toward the end when the ‘dance troupe’ enters, this seems more like a high school presentation than one offered by a high-profile rocker with (one would think) plentiful resources.
Still, the lighthearted moments here offset the pedantry even if they also muffle a more provocative impact (as did the strident tone of 2006’s Living With War, including “Let’s Impeach The President”). Neil is preaching to the converted here and this offering isn’t likely to convince the skeptical. To be fair, the live Greendale does adhere to its the audio counterpart, which is to say, Young and The Horse play the songs, in order, in such a way they emphasize the message(s). And that’s certainly understandable too, except that this approach undermines one of the main strengths of this ensemble: its propensity to jam and the skill with which they do it. Notably, as on the original album, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro spends much more time at a keyboard than on a guitar.
And that’s all in marked contrast to the concert as presented on the road. Usually containing two encores comprised of staples like “Powderfinger” and “Cortez The Killer,” during those segments the foursome reached frenetic peaks of intensity through exactly the kind of extended improvisation missing from the performance of Greendale. But such portions of those shows are not included in the film here, an undeniable shortfall that unfortunately leaves the implicitly commentary too far overshadowing the music. Add to that somewhat desultory effect is that, even as some of the jagged chord progressions are vintage Neil (“Be The Rain”), the quartet has to traverse too much of the ninety-minutes of material at mid-to-slow tempos: “Bringin’ Down Dinner,” with Young on organ, isn’t the only tune with a distinctly funereal air.
Given the near-caricatured archetypes with which the author plays in his narrative, including the ingenuous environmentalist Sun Green and the curmudgeonly but lovable Grandpa, the former Buffalo Springfielder and friend(?) of Crosby Stills & Nash might better have devoted the money spent on the road show to produce an animated (short) piece. Used as ‘pre-show,’ opener’ and/or set break for the concerts, in that format, he and the band could play some of the most relevant Greendale songs, perhaps repeat the pertinent video during those intervals and thus intersperse more favorites than just the handful he used at the end of these concerts. That would certainly placate an audience (in the venues and now at home) quite possible left somewhat dumbfounded by what it had just seen and heard (unless, of course, the attendees/viewers are inspired to action).
Given the multi-format expanse of this Warner Bros. release in all its configurations (vinyl, CD. DVD, Blu-ray and digital), it’s a shame that there’s not one containing the live acoustic solo performance that was part of an early package (perhaps because it has since been made available as a stand-alone live album on digital download and streaming services?). Live At St. Vicar St. would provide an enlightening (and arguably superior) contrast with the band rendition. That said, even if the continuing relevance of Return To Greendale represents nothing more than a means to a greater end, it is nevertheless a crucial one, that is, to remind how important it is to remain familiar with history. If only to take note how how its lessons can change with the passage of time…or not.