2020’s been one of those anxiety ridden years that’s forced us to take stock of what’s important and to try to find the silver linings – things that maybe would not have happened in a year not infected (literally) with the spread of COVID-19. When it comes to music, no “silver linings” album comes to mind quite as impactfully as Words, the stellar collection of Neil Young (and one Stephen Stills) deep tracks performed with raw, rootsy, edgy, sonically expansive and emotionally intense passion by former Great Caesar’s Ghost singer/guitarist Larry Schmidt with a stellar quartet including his legendary bassist GE Smith and former GCG bandmates Ed DiCapua (drums/percussion) and Keith Hill (keyboards).
Nothing against the handful of full blown all-star Young tributes over the years, including the alt-rock driven The Bridge and the Canadian artists collection Borrowed Tunes, but those sets, for all their sweep, lack the organic intimacy and depth of the current collection. The initial casual studio sessions that gave birth to the project happened in 2018, shortly after the disbanding of Great Caesar’s Ghost following the death of longtime collaborator (and Allman Brothers founding member) Butch Trucks. In sessions that were essentially excuses to reconnect and jam again, Schmid and company started with random covers of the mid-tempo rocker “Powderfinger” and laid back, harmonica laced “Out on the Weekend” – and built the magic from there.
Schmid mixed as they went, but it wasn’t till the pandemic shutdown, when he began mixing anew and overdubbing to fill the time, that he began realizing there was enough for a whole album. That sort of freewheeling soulful spontaneity is what makes the project so inviting and appealing, from the mystical, meditative crunch ballad “Words” to the punchy, incendiary “Revolution Blues,” the stark, haunting piano ballad “Soldier” (featuring ominous storm sounds) and the expansive and magnificently jammy, nine plus minute epics “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.”
Interestingly, Schmid chose to launch the ten track collection with Stills’ straightforward folk/rock jangler “Questions” before the Neil excursions start us on a nostalgic roll from the Buffalo Springfield era (“Expecting to Fly”) through his early and classic albums and on through the late 70’s.