Last night, I had the good fortune to catch the premiere of Jonathon Demme's new film, Neil Young: Heart of Gold. It documents most of the concerts Young gave last fall at the Ryman Auditorium. I was lucky enough to catch that show when it happened, and it was pure magic. The sound, mixed by FOH engineer Tim Mulligan, was impeccable (the best I believe I've ever heard at the Ryman) and the stage production was so seamless that it was easy to forget that a major film shoot was taking place.
Emmylou Harris tests out microphones at Brian Ahern’s studio
photo: RICK CLARK
The concert debuted Young's latest album, Prairie Wind, and he played it in its entirety during the first half of the show. It is always interesting to go to a concert and hear an album unfold before me — a totally fresh experience — and be rewarded with music that sounds so rooted and timeless. Young's Old Ways and Comes a Time, both albums recorded in Nashville, offered similar treasures.
Before the recording of Prairie Wind, Young had to check into the hospital for a brain aneurysm. Prairie Wind and the film of the Ryman concert are rich, thoughtful meditations on the preciousness of the time we have on Earth, and on the pricelessness of family, true friends and simple acts like sitting and playing, and being one with a guitar or a pet. The album is one of Young's best and the film cradles these reflections on life with a lot of love (to cop a Young song title).
“It's a Dream,” “The Painter,” “This Old Guitar” and “When God Made Me” are classic Young ruminations, and he delivers them in that distinctive and unmistakable fashion that is simultaneously world-weary and childlike, with stripped-to-the-bone lyrical sparseness. The tender, vulnerable “Falling off the Face of the Earth” is another real gem. During the second half of the concert, Young focused on his past catalog, from “I Am a Child” through his first Nashville album, Harvest (“Heart of Gold,” “Old Man”) to the title song of Comes a Time and a stirring version of Ian & Sylvia's “Four Strong Winds.” Throughout the night, Young sounded totally in the moment, emotionally, and he got magnificent support from Emmylou Harris, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Nashville String Machine and his great band.
I wondered, as I was driving to the premiere at the Green Hills Cinema, if the movie would capture the magic, but from the moment the picture started to roll, it was clear that this was a beautifully rendered labor of love; every moment is exquisitely framed, and each of the players and singers is highlighted.
The music, recorded in David Hewitt's Remote Recording Services truck and engineered and mixed by Chad Hailey and Rob Clark, is every bit as good. People sitting around me were so taken with the “you are there” quality of the mix that they were moved to applaud when the audience in the movie reacted. It sounded about that real from where I sat. The pre-concert interviews and between-songs chatter all added to the significance of the event. Even the shots of Nashville and its landmarks actually made it look like a “real” city, but with the kind of magic and mojo one might find in films shot in Memphis — a place that certainly has no shortage of murky vibe.
The music for the movie was mixed in surround at Blackbird Studio D on a Trident 80B. The mix went to a 2-inch, 8-track Studer 827, and along with the stems, was converted through 24 channels of Pacific Microsonics HDCD converters. Then, all that information was sent to the soundtrack and re-recording mixer Tom Fleishman, who was assisted by FOH Mulligan. Post-production was done at Soundtrack in New York City.
Hailey says the Pacific Microsonics conversion is “very fine. Neil is adamant about maintaining quality all the way through the entire recording and mixing process.”
Hailey was also very complimentary to Arthur “Midget” Sloatman, the chief technical engineer at Blackbird: “Arthur was instrumental in maintaining all the machines and the lock that was necessary to complete the mix. Blackbird is a great facility, and the studio service was outstanding.” All I can say is, if you are a serious Neil Young fan, you'll absolutely love this picture.
As I'm in this groove, I have to mention that Harris is working on her next album with Brian Ahern, the production visionary behind her great early albums. I've heard a couple of tracks, which were engineered and mixed by Donivan Cowart, and the album is shaping up to be a classic. One of the songs I heard is a version of Joni Mitchell's “The Magdalene Laundries,” which takes the song to an even more emotionally direct place than Mitchell's original does. It is like hearing this relatively overlooked song for the first time.
I managed to pull Ahern — who was working with Cowart at Easter Island Surround on a 32-song surround mix of Jimmy Buffett Live at Wrigley Field — to get some thoughts on how he approached making “The Magdalene Laundries.” “I wanted to focus on the intimacy of the composition, which I felt was lost in the original Joni Mitchell recording,” Ahern says. “I wanted Emmy's lips at the mic, while also recording resonance from her head and chest cavity. There is this whole thing about ribbon mics — how you can't get close to them. Well, I called Wes Dooley and he had such a mic that would deal with the requirements of both intimacy and proximity. It was a prototype DJ version of his highly successful R-84.”
In approaching the mix, Ahern adds, “The multitrack recording was loaded with goodies, which I kept stripping away until the story of the song was compelling.” One of the other songs slated to be on the upcoming album is “The Connection,” an Ahern-produced recording of a song you can also find on Rhino's recent The Very Best of Emmylou Harris: Heartaches & Highways. Ahern says he had the song stashed away for years, awaiting the right time for it to be recorded; his instinct about this beautiful portrayal of longing paid off handsomely, winning the 2005 Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
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