Monday 27 March 2017

Miners with a heart of gold

School's in: Pegi
Young
School's in: Pegi Young

How does it feel, I ask Pegi Young, to hear a love song on the radio and know it's about you? As the long-standing wife of genius tunesmith Neil, Pegi has been the muse for some of her husband's most inspired moments -- one thinks of 'Harvest Moon', 'Love and Only Love', 'Such A Woman' . . .

"Well, I never think when I hear them that they're all about me," says Pegi. "As a songwriter myself, I know it's a complex process. Sometimes you might get a spark from someone, but then you take it somewhere else and it ends up being about something else completely.

"Also, it works both ways -- sometimes Neil might play me his latest album and I'll hear a line on it and say, 'hey, where did that come from?! You never told me that was playing on your mind!'"

An accomplished singer/songwriter in her own right, Pegi this week releases her third solo album, Bracing For Impact. A sprightly collection of country-flavoured tunes, it features guest appearances from Neil, returning the compliment after Pegi's occasional turns as backing vocalist on his records and in his touring band.

But the couple have worked tirelessly and selflessly on another project dear to both their hearts for many years.

When their son Ben was born with cerebral palsy and unable to speak, Pegi and Neil set up a special school for children with learning difficulties, funded by a series of yearly concerts at their ranch in Mountain View, California. They called their school The Bridge, after one of Neil's most affecting songs from the 1970s.

Over the past 25 years, some of the most legendary names in rock have weighed in and played the Youngs' benefit concerts, including -- deep breath -- Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Tom Petty, Thom Yorke, REM and Bruce Springsteen as well as younger, more contemporary acts like Band Of Horses, Fleet Foxes and Gillian Welch.

This year's concert, which took place at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View a few weeks ago, was streamed live on YouTube, and featured Mumford & Sons, Arcade Fire, Foo Fighters and Tony Bennett.

Given they've reached the quarter-century milestone, a compilation of some of the finest moments has been compiled on a two-CD, three-DVD box set out this week.

"It seemed right to take a step back and review the body of work we've built up over the past 25 years. I've spent half my working life involved with the school and helping to organise the concerts. It's been challenging but I really do feel that the more you give of yourself, the more you are rewarded.

"The idea to get the acts to do acoustic versions of their songs was something that turned out really well. The artists were forced out of their comfort zone a little -- they couldn't just recreate how they sounded on their records. Also, it's worth noting that we came up with this concept in the mid-80s, which is years before the MTV Unplugged sessions started."

The roll call of artists involved is an A-Z of rock'n'roll. What's it been like working with such talent?

"I think it shows the esteem in which Neil is held by his peers that they all agreed to get involved. We in turn are grateful that they show up and throw themselves into it with such enthusiasm."

Pegi remembers making the decision to start up the school, which is known as a model of innovation.

"When Ben was born, we tried finding the educational tools that would best enable him to communicate with the world. But there just didn't seem to be any. So we decided we'd have to try and have a go ourselves. We've been lucky to work with some amazing people over the years who have really made a difference to the kids' lives."

Pegi was last seen in Ireland on stage in Cork at the Marquee, as part of Neil Young's band a few years back. But it turns out she's been a regular visitor here down all the days.

"I've always liked Ireland. My ancestors were from west Cork. And I remember we used to visit Neil's dad Scott when he lived in Dublin. We used to go to this lovely quiet fishing village outside the city (Howth) where you could eat the most incredible fresh fish in the restaurants there. He would bring us to this local pub -- the name escapes me -- and we'd have a great night out.

"Also, our daughter turned 18 when Neil played Vicar St (in 2003), so Neil, myself, our daughter and some of the crew all went out for dinner in Dublin. Another really memorable night."

Finally, what's Neil up to next?

"Jonathan Demme, who is a great filmmaker and a dear friend, is releasing the third in what I suppose you could call a trilogy of documentaries he's made about Neil. This one's called Journey. He filmed Neil in his car driving around where he grew up in Ontario in Canada. He drives all the way to Massey Hall in Toronto, where he then played a gig. That was the same venue he played in the early 1970s. It's so well preserved. It has so much character."

The Bridge box set and Bracing For Impact are out on Reprise/Warner.

nkelly@independent.ie

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