|Neil Young, Garth Hudson and Peter J. Moore, backed by the Sadies outside Moore's studio.|
My buddy Rad Jen posted this on Facebook this weekend, and I thought that it was so brilliant that I had to share. Greg Quill, entertainment reporter for the Toronto Star, penned this wonderful essay on Neil Young and The Sadies recording the Bob Dyaln/Rick Danko classic "This Wheel's on Fire" for the album A Canadian Celebration of The Band, which was released in November 16.
This Neil’s on Fire: A classic cut reborn
Those who know him say Neil Young never begins a new recording project before cleansing his musical soul by immersing himself in The Basement Tapes, those seminal 1965 recordings of one of rock’s overwhelming Big Bang moments, when The Band – formerly The Hawks, from Toronto – and Bob Dylan, recuperating from a motorcycle accident near Woodstock, N.Y., undertook a stunningly fruitful 100-song collaboration, melding new compositions with country music, folk music, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and R&B, and redefining the forms, functions, language and boundaries of popular American music.
So, when Young turned up one morning in April 2009 at the west-end Toronto studio of award-winning music producer/engineer Peter J. Moore to add his contribution to a collection of some great and some lesser known Band songs — recorded during the past three years by a number of Canada’s prominent pop, rock and folk acts, selected and arranged by The Band’s legendary keyboardist Garth Hudson, and released last week as A Canadian Celebration of The Band, on the Curve Music label — it was appropriate that a particularly potent talisman, the original Big Pink basement tape recording of the Dylan-Rick Danko composition, “This Wheel’s On Fire,” was positioned decorously on the studio’s fireplace mantel, oozing mojo.
Young and Toronto country-rock outfit The Sadies were about to lay into what may well be the best version of the song — recorded by everyone from Ian & Sylvia to Siouxsie and the Banshees, and also known as the theme song to Absolutely Fabulous — ever recorded, and certainly the album’s money cut.
“They had intended to record it with acoustic instruments,” Moore says, recalling some of the dozens of amusing, cathartic, frustrating and catastrophic events that occurred during the lengthy recording project, the brainchild of Hudson and his wife/manager, Maud, who live in upstate New York.
“And Neil was supposed to record his bit four months earlier, but performance schedules and a sore throat kept pushing it back.”
When Young finally did show up – his three tour buses took up an entire block of the narrow residential street on which Moore’s studio is situated – it was on a travel day between concerts in Kingston and London. And he had no intention of playing an acoustic guitar.
“There’s a knock at the door, and Larry Cragg, Neil’s guitar technician, is standing there, asking how he can get ‘the rig’ into the studio,” Moore says.
Young’s guitar rig — a famously mystical contraption made up of a battered, modified vintage Fender amplifier boosted by several custom-made sound-processing devices, distortion effects and a number of reverb plates, linked together and gaffer-taped to an assembly that rests in a huge black box — can’t be turned sideways, for fear of displacing loose but vital objects, Moore was told.
“So we had about six guys lift it over the driveway fence and into the backyard, where it was unpacked, and the rig was rolled into the studio’s piano room through patio doors that had to be removed.”
Accommodating the guitarist’s huge red pedal board with it’s gigantic “umbilical cord” that ran from the main studio in the front of the building to the rig in back, meant cutting holes in doors and jambs – ad hoc renovations that Moore, credited with Hudson as co-producer on the album, was only too happy to make in order to facilitate the creation of a recording he calls “a labour of love.”
With Hudson and The Sadies in Moore’s “big room”, and his guitar rig in another, Young worked through the song, settling the arrangement, before the musicians cut “four or five” versions, any of which would have been perfectly acceptable, Moore says.
“Then Neil left, and went back into the piano room where his amp was, and closed the door. I could hear him practicing scales in there with the piano, warming up his voice . . . then things got very quiet.”
Thinking their work was more or less done, The Sadies relaxed. Dallas Good had left his electric guitar on a stand in the studio to make coffee in the adjoining kitchen. Brother Travis was in a corner picking an acoustic guitar off-mic. Garth leaned over his keyboard. Drummer Mike Belitsky, Moore recalls, had set his sticks aside and was standing by his kit, chatting with bassist Sean Dean.
“Suddenly, the piano room door flew open, and without a word, Neil rushed into the studio, picked up his guitar and whacked out this enormous chord. He was going for it.”
The only evidence you’ll hear of the panic that ensued – Dallas flying across the room, plugging in his axe (Moore edited out the “pop” in the mix), Dean picking his stand-up bass off the floor, Belitsky diving into his kit and extracting his sticks – is the missing first beat on the snare drum.
It’s a beat Moore says he’s happy to live without.
“That was a killer take. Luckily the recorder was still running.”
Part fury, part ecstasy, “This Wheel’s On Fire” by The Sadies, Hudson and Young is a defining event on A Canadian Celebration of The Band, a three-minute explosion that captures all six musicians at their best, and delivers a heart-stopping wallop. It sounds extemporaneous, immediate, too big for the room – it’s as good as rock ‘n’ roll gets.
“I think that was Neil’s intention,” Moore says. “I’m just guessing here, but when he stormed out of that back room it was as if he meant to catch everyone off guard, to get their blood pumping.
“If that was his plan, it certainly worked.”
Buy (Maple Music): Garth Hudson Presents A Canadian Celebration of The Band (2010)
Garth Hudson plays keyboards on all tracks along with the following artists:
1. Forbidden Fruit – Danny Brooks & The Rockin’ Revelators
2. Out Of The Blue – Mary Margret O’Hara
3. Acadian Driftwood – Peter Katz & The Curious
4. This Wheel’s On Fire – Neil Young and The Sadies
5. Ain’t Got No Home – Suzie McNeil
6. Clothes Line Saga - Cowboy Junkies
7. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere - Kevin Hearn & Thin Buckle
8. Sleeping - Bruce Cockburn & Blue Rodeo
9. Yazoo Street Scandal - The Road Hammers
10. The Moon Struck One – Raine Maida
11. The Shape I’m In - The Sadies
12. Tears Of Rage – Chantal Kreviazuk
13. I Loved You Too Much – Hawskley Workman
14. Knockin’ Lost John - Great Big Sea
15. King Harvest - Blue Rodeo
16. Move To Japan – The Trews
17. Genetic Method (Anew) – Garth Hudson
18. Chest Fever – Ian Thornley & Bruce Cockburn
I don't have this record yet. Who wants to get their favorite blogger an early Christmas present???
Rick Danko - This Wheel's on Fire.mp3
Buy: Times Like These (2000)