I am just back from an amazing experience - watching the Neil Young rehearsal for this week's Saturday Night Live!!! (Please excuse all the exclamation points - but I'm REALLY excited and I wanted to avoid using caps lock too much!!!).
The call came from my friend at NBC at 11:30am: Would I like to come check out the run-through for Neil? I was there in a flash. We hung outside the glass window of Studio 8H from about 12:35 til 12:50, watching Neil and the band and crew mill about the stage and set up. There was the wooden Indian and the beautiful pump organ that's familiar to anyone who's seen Neil/CSNY live or on TV. Host John Goodman was there early on, hanging and laughing with Mr. Young, the writers, and assorted guests and crew.
Shortly before 1:00 pm, Neil took the stage and began his run-through so the audio crew could set levels. My friend and I decided this was the time to enter the studio - NBC has had to crack down on employees hanging out for these rehearsals, and there is now a memo on the door saying something like "Sorry - closed rehearsal, but you can show around guests for 10 or 15 minutes...".
We were in our seats just in time. Neil took the stage and began a gentle riff. We got a solo Silver & Gold - with a slight false start (about 1/2 verse). Jim Keltner joned in about halfway through on maraccas, and Spooner Oldham was sat at the pump organ. Although we couldn't really hear anything coming from the organ, it looked like he was playing the keys...
After S&G, Neil kept playing his harmonica for a bit, then asked them if there was any reason for this immense monitor cabinet to be in the way. Neil was positioned towards the right of the stage, and after pointing out that there was nothing coming out of this huge (6' tall, 3' square) cabinet, he bid it farewell, saying "Arivederci!!"
The crew showed Neil a platform cowboy boot with glitter all over the platform part, asking him to sign it, and saying that Elton John had signed it previously. Neil looked it over several times, and failing to find Elton's signature, he handed it back without signing.
I should say that Neil seemed to be in a very good mood - smiling a lot, laughing and joking with the crew and writers and guests. At this point there were about 25 or 30 people total in the studio including crew, band, etc... My friend and I were up in the bleachers, just taking it all in.
Neil then did another false start of a solo S&G, stopping to say that they should turn down the volume because it was drowning out all the conversations people were having on the set (a wee bit sarcastic but smilng nonetheless). We got another 1/2 version of S&G, then Neil went to hang right in front of the stage with the writers and a couple of band members.
At this point, I was amazed to see the man himself, Don Pardo walk onto the set. I though he was no longer with the show, but there he was - and he's a TALL guy! At this point there was a long (10 min) break where Neil just milled about, talking to writers and crew and band. Then they called Neil over to shoot some stills for (I'm guessing) the pictures they put on screen during the comercial breaks. While they shot, Neil kept playing his guitar (couldn't quite hear if it was a particular riff or tune - the photo area was off to the far left side of the set). We could hear him joking loudly with the photographer about something he saw on TV last night. They had Neil sit down on a short stool for even more picture taking, then even more pix with the whole band together.
At 1:10 they took another break, but Neil was back at 1:17 sitting at the grand piano, just riffing while everyone else set up around him. At this point the stage had a smoky sheen due to a smoke machine off to the extreme left, just behind the photo area - as the lighting techs aimed a white spot onto Neil's head from behind.
At this point Neils guitar tech, Larry Cragg, opened a road case and took out a white sage smudge stick. After unwrapping the black thread around it, he lit it and placed it on a silver platter to the right of the drum kit. Large candles were brought out and placed on the pump organ and lit.
Neil then left the piano (which he was playing this whole time) to go to the front of the stage, where he just sat on the floor talking to Duck Dunn who was right in front of the stage. He got up to answer somebody's question, then sat back down on the stage (more to the right) with guitar in hand, just playing and riffing as he continued to talk to Duck. According to my friend, who has seen many of these rehearsals for SNL, Neil is the only person he has seen just keep playing and playing and playing no matter what was going on around him. Most artists he said just show up, do their songs, and leave. Neil was just guitar happy - riffing every time he got a chance to play.
Neil and Duck then split for a while (under the bleachers - we coldn't see where they were going) as the crew continued to take pictures with the photographer. At 1:35, John Goodman came back to the set, and sat down to do his publicity shots, mugging for the camera. A few minutes later the "feed" came on - meaning the TV monitors around the studio started showing various camera shots. This is a signal to NBC employees that the soundcheck is done, and it is time for the actual run-through with cameras and lights. Apparently at NBC, many folks have monitors on their desks, and you can flip around and see feeds from the various studios. At this point I was ready to clobber my friend for not putting a tape in to recored this whole rehearsal! Oh well - sometimes, music is meant to go into the ether and never be recorded...
The crew moved the organ to a better spot on the stage (it had been all the way in the back on the right - they brought it forward next to the drums). Just before 2pm, the lighting woman was hoisted into her little loft in the center of the ceiling, and withing a couple minutes more, Neil came to the stage with the whole band in tow.
The band was Spooner Oldham on grand piano, Jim Keltner on drums, Donald Duck Dunn on bass, and Ben Keith on pedal steel guitar. The house lights came down, Neil dipped his harmonica into a glass of water, and we were ready. As John Goodman continued his extended photo session off to the side in a eerie glow of white light, Neil and the boys launched into Razor Love. A beautiful version, with his face showing lots of emotion as he sang, voice soaring. The stage was lit with blue and white lights that made a pattern of broken glass shards on the floor all around...as cameras swooped in on giant dollies to get the closeups, with a couple of hand-held cameras on stage.
As soon as Razor Love ended, Neil launched into another riff on the guitar, and the crew tried to figure out where to put the wooden Indian so it would hide the cameraman in the back who was shooting Spooner and Keltner from the rear. All the while, Neil was jamming this riff, with Keltner and Duck following him - forgive me, but none of us up in the stands knew what tune he was riffing on - but it had a decidedly familiar Neil feel. Once the Indian was in a better place, the band did another Razor Love start to finish.
There was a ten minute break while they moved Neil's stool and mics to front and center. Duck and a number of the studio guests came up to the bleachers to sit down and hang and watch the scond part of the run-through. Neil sat down at 2:34 with his Martin Guitar to play Silver & Gold. This version was Neil solo (no Keltner on Maraccas, no Spooner on organ despite the crew moving the organ closer to the front).
True to form for this rehearsal, Neil kept playing after S&G was done, just gently jamming on the S&G riff for another couple of minutes while the crew began wrapping up. Then we heard the stage manager say "Thanks, Neil! - See you Saturday!", and that was it.
So that's it - a blow-by-blow description of the SNL rehearsal - and once again thanks to my NBC friend for getting me in! Hope this was of some interest to everyone -- and hope to have more stories like this to share in the future. Gee, maybe next week i can do the blow-by-blow Britney Spears rehearsal review... ;-)
Thanks for letting me spew forth the details!
Went to the aired SNL show last night and saw Neil.
Great performance! Unfortunately, I was seated on the far side of the studio from the performance stage. When he did Razor Love, he was seated behind this girder, and I could only see him on the monitor. But when he did Silver & Gold, I could see him directly.
I've been to Saturday Night Live broadcast shows before, and usually the floor of the studio is constantly in motion with people scurrying about, even during the musical performances. But last night, when Neil performed, it looked like everyone in the building swarmed to the floor to see him. It was absolutely packed with people mesmerized by his singing -- never seen it like that before.
It seemed clear even the audience was more psyched to see Neil than they were for John Goodman.
He also seemed geniunely happy to be there, smiling at the end of each song, waving to the audience on his way off the stage, and then jovially barking with Goodman at the close. That's more crowd interaction than at many of Neil's full-length shows that I've seen.
I was at BobFest too, and consider myself lucky to have seen some of Neil's special "cameo" moments.