Sunday, May 23, 2010

Neil Young Visits New Dimensions

About three songs into Neil Young’s solo performance Friday night at the Hanover Theatre in Worcester, Mass., I was struck by the thought: “He has finally surpassed Bob Dylan.” Perhaps he did years ago, but the notion was undeniable in the moment given the power of his singular performance. And that was just the beginning of the show; I was even more convinced by the night’s end.

Despite his own iconic stature, Neil has forever seemed to labor (albeit prolifically) in the shadow of the quixotic troubadour from Hibbing. The Dylan canon is a formidable one to compete with – perhaps as much for its historical and social context as for the artistry itself (though I would argue on behalf of the artistry). Nevertheless, here I was listening to a sublime rendition of “Helpless” – just Neil’s shaky voice and his resonant acoustic guitar and I thought, “This is majestic … Dylan could never do this.” Bob needs his band. Neil, on the other hand, soars with or without accompaniment.

Of course, Neil has an incomparable catalog. Like Dylan, he’s had his highs and lows, his triumphant comebacks and head-scratching misfires. But one can argue (if so inclined) that while Dylan might still have the lead in career home runs, Neil beats him in OBP (on base percentage). So, if I was a GM reviewing my roster for this season and next, I’d have to go with the young(er) Canadian.

I don’t say this lightly, I’m a huge Dylan fan and I’ve seen him in concert well over a dozen times in the last 30 years. I’ve seen Neil less than half as many times over less than half as many years.

In most solo performances by musicians of Neil’s ilk, you simply get more intimate acoustic renditions of the artist’s greatest hits. Perhaps the arrangements are reworked a bit to give new life to the familiar. In Friday’s performance, however Neil gave whole new dimensionality to a number of his classics, especially the songs he performed on electric guitar without the crazy horsepower of his usual backing band. Songs like “Cortez the Killer” and “Down by the River” were not 20-minute feedback-laden jams – though Neil did coax some feedback out of Old Black (his trusty Bisgby-outfitted Gibson Les Paul) and his C.S.N.&Y.-era Gretsch White Falcon at points during the evening. For the most part, however, he relied on tight arrangements and creative use of vibrato, sustain and a few effects to reanimate these and other old favorites in thoroughly engaging ways.

What also made this 14-date solo tour – labeled “Twisted Road” and winding from Massachusetts to Texas – especially promising from the start was the prospect of Neil debuting some new music. In all, eight of the 18 songs in his set were new – and at least five or six of them were truly outstanding.

* * *

A deceptively minimal stage set provided plenty of visual ambiance to complement the rich timbre of the music. Subtle lighting provided dramatic effects when projected on a climbing-wall-like backdrop divided by a few monolithic pillars. The stage equipment was triangulated by three atmospherically lit keyboards: an upright piano at stage left, a vintage pump organ looming in the back and a white grand piano psychedelicized with orange and pink paint splatters to the right. In the middle, four small amplifiers were fronted by a chair for the seated acoustic performance and a mic stand and effects pedal board for the electric playing.

The night began with Neil casually strolling out, and sitting down to play a mic’ed acoustic guitar. Things got increasingly electric as the set progressed, and he was out of his seat, stalking the front of the stage before he finished the first few acoustic songs. More than half of the concert featured electric guitar, with a three-song keyboard segment two-thirds of the way through providing a brief break in the rocking.

The opening song was an understated rendition of “Hey Hey, My My,” followed by a somewhat more energetic version of “Tell Me Why.” By the third song, “Helpless,” Neil was on stride. “Helpless” is far from one of my favorite Young songs, but this highly emotive version was powerful and captivating in its languid lyrical delivery and melancholic harmonica lines.

Then Neil switched from the big Martin dreadnoughts to a smaller acoustic guitar with a pickup that changed the sonic palette for a series of powerful new songs. The first of these, “You Never Call,” is a hauntingly beautiful slow song reminiscent of some of Prairie Wind. It’s likely addressed to the singer’s late father – or possibly God (see comments for further interpretation of the song’s subject matter).

The haunting new melodies continued on “Peaceful Valley,” an engaging and quintessentially Youngian tale that evolved from a dissertation on the costs of pioneer-era Western expansion into a diatribe on contemporary moral and environmental armageddon. It poignantly culminated with the plaintive refrain: “Who’ll be the beacon in the night?”

The third new song in this mini minor-key triumvirate was “Love and War,” about the heartbreak of separation and loss and the musician’s futile perseverance in singing about the two topics of the title.

The introduction of electric guitar for the more familiar “Down By the River” provided a nice segue into the remainder of the set. The song wasn’t quite the same without the band crashing in behind Neil on the transitions, but it wasn’t meant to be. It held up well, nonetheless.

Next, came the musical high point of the night: the historically confessional “Hitchhiker,” in which Neil reflects on his journey from Toronto to California, from youthful indulgence to mature gratitude and contentment. Word is that this is an older unreleased track, but it was new to me. With swirling phaser effects on a churning electric guitar riff reminiscent of some the tracks Young did with Pearl Jam on 1995’s Mirror Ball, this one packed all the wallop of a full band. The insertion of a few lines from “Like an Inca,” from 1982’s Trans, was a nice added touch.

Next, Neil whipped out the White Falcon for a timely take on C.S.N.&Y.’s “Ohio” (it being the 40th anniversary of Kent State and all). The classic guitar riff and macabre recollection of Nixon and his tin soldiers was carried along by the crowd’s enthusiastic clapping. Neil did a particularly nice job singing this one, no easy feat without Crosby and Nash’s familiar vocal backing.

The next new song, “Sign of Love,” is a Mirror Ball meets After the Gold Rush slab of rock in which romantic verses about a lasting relationship are married to a bridge reminiscent of 1970’s “When You Dance I Can Really Love.”

Neil then began working his way around the horn of keyboards, starting with the upright piano for yet another new tune. Young introduced “Leia” as “just a little song about a little girl” (not a granddaughter, he said, correcting assumptions aired in the blogosphere). The songs nursery rhyme-like melody and precious vocal, though sweet in intention, did not make for particularly satisfying concert fodder.

Moving to the back of the stage, Neil grabbed a harmonica and worked the pump organ for another of the concert’s highlights, an elegiac rendition of “After the Gold Rush” that elicited rapturous applause from the audience. From there he proceeded to the grand piano, where he performed a beautiful Lennon-esque take on “I Believe in You” (must’ve been the white grand).

The somber mellowness of the three keyboard tunes provided an effective contrast to the electric bombast that came before and after. Once finished with the keys, Neil returned to Old Black for another new song, “Rumblin’,” which kicked off with a melodic guitar lick recalling The Waterboys’ “Rags” or early R.E.M. before delving into another of Neil’s trademark eco-conscious narratives: “The Earth is talking to me / To me, in many voices / I hear the rumblin’ in her ground ... When will I learn how to listen? / When will I learn how to feel? / When will I learn how to give back? / When will I learn how to heal?”

Jumping from the new take on a familiar theme to an old take on a lasting one (Native Americans), Young single-handedly galloped toward the climax of the set. He worked whammy-bar wonders with the Bigsby on a spare, but evocative version of “Cortez the Killer” (another of the night’s many highlights) before concluding with a rip-snortin’ run through “Cinnamon Girl.”

He returned for a quick encore, beginning with another White Falcon flight of distorted twang on “Walk with Me,” the last new song of the set. Once again, it was proof of why, after all these years, Neil Young remains the Godfather of Grunge – and he doesn’t even need any help.

The 95-minute performance concluded with my only disappointment of the night (and a minor one at that). In the previous two concerts of the tour, Neil had opened with the acoustic “My My, Hey Hey” and closed with the electric “Hey Hey, My My.” In Worcester, however, he dropped the heavy back bookend in favor of an acoustic strum through the poppy apex of his catalog: his 1972 No. 1 hit “Heart of Gold.” Well-performed though it was, and perhaps welcomed by his more “light weight” fans, the more hardcore among us missed the final thrash in the name of The King and Johnny Rotten.

Rare Treat

As if a great Neil Young performance alone wasn’t enough, an added treat – a big one to me, though unfortunately apparently not as much so to many in the audience – was the rare appearance of Bert Jansch as the opening act. The Scottish folk guitar legend was invited by Neil to open the tour, and next month he’ll be playing some shows out west with Neil’s wife, Pegi, who has a burgeoning solo career in her own right. (Click here for my brief review of Bert’s set.)

Full Set List – Worcester, Mass. (5/21/10)

• My My, Hey Hey

• Tell Me Why

• Helpless

• You Never Call (new)

• Peaceful Valley (new)

• Love and War (new)

• Down By the River

• Hitchhiker (new)

• Ohio

• Sign of Love (new)

• Leia (new)

• After the Gold Rush

• I Believe in You

• Rumblin’ (new)

• Cortez the Killer

• Cinnamon Girl


• Walk with Me (new)

• Heart of Gold

1 comment:

  1. Subsequent to my original post, I have learned (through the interesting, passionate and robust Neil fan site Thrasher’s Wheat), that the actual subject of the new song, "You Never Call," is Neil’s long-time friend and film-making compatriot, L.A. Johnson, who died early this year. According to Thrasher’s, Johnson was not only a dear friend, but he died while taking Neil’s handicapped son, Ben, to a Red Wings hockey game. Must be quite emotional for Neil to sing that one!

    More background on Johnson here: