If you are a Neil Young fan at all, you probably knew about his Neil Young Archives website already — he started it a few years ago, and it is an impressive and extremely well-designed archive of virtually every song and album he has ever played, going back to the early days when he played R&B in Winnipeg. There’s a virtual file cabinet you can flip back through, each entry has photos and videos and news articles you can look at while you are listening to the song — in high fidelity of course. All of that is fantastic and clearly took a lot of work and thought, but that’s not the most amazing thing about the site. The most amazing thing is what Neil and his relatively new wife, actress Daryl Hannah — have been doing with what they call the “Fireside Sessions.”
These are videos, some of them half an hour long or more, filmed by Daryl, in which Neil sits and plays his guitar by the outdoor fire-pit — in one case, playing while snow is falling all around him — or plays his old upright piano in what appears to be the rustic living room of his cabin, with a fire going in the fireplace and dogs wandering around. In between songs like “Four Strong Winds” and “Out on the Weekend,” he talks to the dogs, or says he hopes his fans are staying healthy, or chats with Daryl about the homemade harmonica stand the two put together out of wood-working clamps and old fireplace tools, because they didn’t have a real stand.
Sometimes the guitars are a little out of tune, and the sound isn’t that great, and the video is dark or murky. Neil’s getting on in years as well (sorry Neil) so his voice is a little thin sometimes. But the songs are as strong as they ever were, and he puts a lot of soul into the performances, and in some cases gives them a softer feeling than when he would play them with a big band. It’s a very personal thing — and it feels as though you just happened to drop into Neil and Daryl’s cabin (which is apparently in Telluride, Colorado), and he felt like picking up the guitar or sitting down at the piano, and let you listen in. It is truly magical. I don’t want to say anything nice about a global pandemic, but to have this opportunity to see artists like Neil playing live in their living rooms is quite something (access to the site is usually by subscription only, but Neil has made it free to all during the pandemic).
There are lots of other great videos too in what they call the Hearse Theater, which is named after the famous hearse that Neil drove around in when he first drove down from Canada and hooked up with the guys from Buffalo Springfield (I live not far from where Neil spent much of his childhood, in Omemee, Ontario — the town he wrote the song “Helpless” about). It can be hard to find the videos sometimes, because they seem to come and go, but in one of them Neil plays Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” in one of the old-style recording booths that used to be popular at county fairs in the 1950s, a booth that musician Jack White now has at his recording studio. Other videos show Neil doing interviews about playing with his country band The International Harvesters, or live footage of the band playing in the 1970s somewhere. It’s fascinating.
Anyway, if you are a Neil Young fan — or even if you aren’t, but love music — it’s worth checking the whole archive site out. There’s a virtual newspaper where Neil responds to letters from his fans, and all sorts of other stuff I haven’t even mentioned. Warning: You could get lost here and when you finally lift your head up, hours will have gone by. In closing, here’s a pandemic-themed video Neil and Daryl made for his recent song “Shut it Down.”