Wednesday, July 28, 2010

R.I.P. Ben Keith, 1937 - 2010

Yesterday, I was saddened to hear about the passing of Ben Keith, Neil Young's long time band mate. He has played the pedal steel guitar on many of Neil's best records from Harvest right up to 2007's Chrome Dreams II. His contributions to music is one of the main reasons why we today regard Neil as one of the greatest artists of all time. Neil has worked with a lot of musicians during his career, but none had that 'magic' relationship to his songs like Ben Keith, or Crazy Horse and The Stray Gators for that matter. Ben's musical ability was impeccable, and I've always thought his steel guitar playing was to Neil just like Danny Federici's organ was to Springsteen. Every fan probably has their own favorite 'Ben Keith' moment in Neil's records; I got too many to mention, but the one that stands out for me is Words. Just listen to his playing on Harvest and be awed. I'm thankful I got to see him play for Neil last year at Hyde Park.

Tonight's The Night is one of those records I never got around to listening until tonight (no pun intended). I was just reading the chapter in Shakey (a highly recommended read) about the making of the album -- crazy times indeed, with all those drunken recording sessions. It was the tragic deaths of Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry that inspired Neil and Crazy Horse to put out some of the rawest and most intense tunes ever. Neil sounded like he could break into tears anytime. The music was spontaneous and off the cuff. At one point in Speakin' Out, Neil shouts for Nils Lofgren to go for a guitar solo. Ben Keith really let it out on this one -- subtle yet powerful, his steel guitar managed to conjure up many feelings of lonesomeness and depression. Listen to Tired Eyes. Yes, it is a dark and heartbreaking album, but yet there was something very hopeful and uplifting about it -- putting that live version of Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown (with Danny on lead vocals) was probably a wise decision, a reminder of how important he was to Crazy Horse. I think the best way to appreciate Tonight's The Night is listen to it fully sober.