Neil Young’s Long Shadow on Canadian Music

Singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith reflects on icon’s influence and legacy before blockbuster tribute concert.

For critically acclaimed singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith, paying tribute to one of the country’s most beloved musical icons is a daunting task, even with Lou Reed and a host of talented musicians sharing the bill.

“As a kid, you would always hear Neil Young on the radio, back when radio actually played good music,” says Sexsmith. “When I first started playing the bars in Ontario, when I was 17, my brother Don said I would have to learn some Neil Young. You could play his songs all night and everyone would be happy.”

Along with a packed line-up of more than 25 musicians — among them Reed, Iron and Wine frontman Sam Beam, Brendan Canning, Jason Collett and fellow members of Broken Social Scene, Joan as Police Woman and Julie Doiron, all of whom could headline their own venues — Sexsmith says he’ll do his best to honour Young’s “enormous” body of work. Coordinated by legendary producer Hal Willner, the two performances — a second show was recently added — will take place February 18 and 19 at Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre as part of the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad. It is called, fittingly, Hal Willner’s Neil Young Project.

“I’ve always loved [Young]. He’s one of those artists who has been so prolific that it’s hard to keep up with everything he’s doing,” he says. “You walk down any street in Canada, and if there’s a busker he’s probably playing a Neil Young song.”

While the Juno-winning Sexsmith, who has already participated in one Willner-curated tribute, has his own loyal following and critically lauded body of work, he says Young and his songwriting peers of the 1960s and 1970s have left big shoes to fill.

“I really admire Neil, or [Gordon] Lightfoot, or Joni [Mitchell], or Leonard [Cohen]. They’re the four horsemen of Canadian songwriters, and they loom pretty large,” he says. “I’ve made a lot of records, but I’ve always been under the radar. I’ve never made one of those songs that works its way into the culture, and everyone knows it. That’s something that Neil’s done over and over.”

Part of that is due to the changing face of the popular music industry and what is being sold to music consumers, he says. With the advent of popularity-contest music shows and flashy awards extravaganzas, Sexsmith says it seems like everyone wants to be a diva — and to get famous, fast.

“When Neil and those guys were doing it, it was a different time. He never cared about any of that stuff, and he wasn’t in it for fame. He wasn’t out for perfection, either,” he adds. “We’re living in a strange time. People like Neil and Willie Nelson, they’re the real deal. I know time only moves in one direction, and it’s hard to say what the next thing is. But it probably won’t be that.”

“Hal Willner’s Neil Young Project” is February 18 and 19 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Hamilton Street at West Georgia Street, Vancouver; tickets from $59 to $75.

Tickets and more information about Hal Willner’s Neil Young Project

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