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Neil's still going, but
Prairie Wind isn't his best

Neil Young
Prairie Wind (Reprise)


There’s a bootleg floating around by the name of
The Complete Joel Bernstein Tapes. Before I go
any further, though, realize that it’s not worth paying
top dollar on eBay for — no bootleg is. There’s
plenty of kind people who will be happy to set up a
B&P or trade with you if you’d like to hear it (end
rant). Back on track, though, this particular set is a
compilation of acoustic performances taken from
November of 1976. On this tour with Crazy Horse,
Young Neil was splitting his shows into two halves
— an acoustic set and a blistering live set with the
Horse. As the legend goes, Bernstein, a photographer and archivist in the Young clan, culled his favorite bits and
compiled them onto this particular tape.

There are funny moments, there are warm, wonderful live moments, and mostly, there are great moments, the
ones that remind of how powerful Neil can be with just a guitar in hand. Haunting tracks like “The Old Laughing
Lady,” “Mr. Soul” and “Give Me Strength” glisten through the murk of his old acoustic and high-pitched warble. No
one plays acoustic (or electric, for that matter) like Young, and few were quite as powerful with it as their only

Fast forward 29 years. Neil Young is a year removed from the conclusion of his tour with Crazy Horse in support
of the massive
Greendale project, he’s had an operation to remove an aneurysm from his brain and his father
has died. Not an easy year to cope with, and the music made in response on
Prairie Wind reflects that. There’s a
mellow, overall low feeling through most of the album. Young sounds weary and reflective, but overall
comfortable in his own shoes, albeit he’s not totally sure of where he stands in the world at all times.

“The Painter” is one of Young’s better songs in a while, where he relays the story of a painter working on her
piece, and he sounds especially earnest on “This Old Guitar” and “When God Made Me,” two songs that reflect
poignantly on his career and life, respectively, though not exclusively.

But in the end, it’s hard not to feel shortchanged by this record. It’s not a bad album by any means, but there’s
definitely a lack of fire. Maybe that was the intention, but it doesn’t make for a particularly engaging listen. At his
best, even with just a guitar, Young is passionate, fiery and restless. There’s an urgent message bursting
through his best songs, and for the most part, that’s absent here. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with anything
on here, it’s just missing what Young’s late producer David Briggs termed “The Spook.” The Nashville backing
and sweet melodies are fine, but there’s nothing burning underneath.

This album (intentionally or not) seems like the third in his “Harvest” series, beginning with 1972’s
Harvest and
carried on in 1992’s
Harvest Moon. “This Old Guitar” even contains clear illusions to the latter’s title song in the
guitar bridge. But those earlier albums, though quiet and clean, still have a tension that
Prairie Wind lacks. It
sounds like music made for music’s sake, not music made to burn through the walls. This is the tamest his
acoustic guitar has ever sounded, even more so than on 2000’s
Silver and Gold.

The accolades for this album have been great so far, and it’s not hard to see why — it’s a very sweet, endearing
record and, given the circumstances, rather amazing. But that still doesn’t make it a vital listen. The fact that this
album was made is fantastic, but that alone doesn’t make it a great album.

Through the years, Young himself has been as hard-lined about capturing the moment and the right sound and
an urgent feeling as anyone, never settling for anything less than the best.

Well, the listener shouldn’t have to settle, either. I’m sure Neil would agree.