The Continuing Story of Neil Young

About a month ago we went to see Neil Young play in Boston.

It’s been an Indian summer in New England so the evening of the concert made for pleasant walking weather.  With a few hours before the show, we strolled down Newbury Street which was filled with people, shops, and restaurants.  Add to that brick sidewalks, falling leaves, and an impending concert and you have one happy couple.

We stopped to browse at a few stores, but Raven Books took most of our time and attention.  I found an interesting title on a bargain rack, THE REJECTION COLLECTION: CARTOONS YOU NEVER SAW, AND WILL NEVER SEE, IN THE NEW YORKER.  I thought it was fascinating to read all of the discarded work submitted by cartoonists that, despite being brilliant and funny, is often offensive, strange, and suggestive.  I especially enjoyed the idea of how, prior to the publishing of this text, these illustrations would have remained invisible.  Being a fan of album b-sides and deleted scenes in film, it’s hardly surprising that I’d be intrigued by this compilation, and for $3 it wasn’t a hard sell.

Returning down Boylston Street, we made our way to the concert, which was at the Wang Theater of the Citi Performing Arts Center in the theater district.  I was glad we arrived a bit early to stop the merch booth to snag a poster.  I’m a devoted collector of concert posters from the shows that I attend.  It’s a great way to remember the show, decorate your walls, and spend less than a t-shirt on something that will last a lifetime.  I’m a fan of durable goods.

Wang Theater in Boston, MA

Bliss and heaven! Gorgeousness and gorgeousity!

It is never disappointing to attend a concert in an old theater.  They are unbelievably ornate and evoke an atmosphere that modern venues, despite their improvements in sound, design, and other amenities (specifically bigger seats), can’t match in ambience.  The Wang Theater was built in 1925 as The Metropolitan Theater and has since, like many theaters, experienced a new life with the help of generous donors to restore its original beauty.

Ceiling of the Wang Theater in Boston, MA

Fancy eyeball ceiling!

The incredible design also makes the period of waiting for the show to start anything but boring since it’s precious time to appreciate and observe the intricate details that abound in such theaters.  It’s also the time to check the stage out.  With no opening act, it makes observing the setup that much easier.  Young has a lone chair, it’s a solo show with no backing band, that is surrounded by several guitars.  There are pianos on either side of the stage, one an upright, with a pump organ raised in the rear of the stage.  The only non-instrument on the stage is a wooden Indian.  Hanging behind the stage are three rugs.  It is an intimate setting that evokes, as one review I happened upon called it, a living room.

Neil Young's Stage

Neil Young’s “Living Room” stage.

Neil Young’s tours have always felt as though they’ve taken place in a specific locale.  For the Greendale tour that I attended in 2003 it was at the Double E ranch, the property of the Green family, about whom we learn as the album unfolds.  The 2007 Chrome Dreams tour, my second Neil Young show, took place on an old film set, filled with props such as lighting equipment, including a painter, Eric Johnson, who composed on canvases as Young and his band played.

While the stage conjures a particular time and place, Young always play songs that span his career and bands.

The Greendale tour was comprised of the entire GREENDALE album and an encore of hits and fan favorites including “Like A Hurricane,” “Rockin’ In The Free World,” and “Sedan Delivery.”  I loved the Chrome Dreams tour, which was far more eclectic and varied.  Young came out and played a solo acoustic set, before plugging in and going electric with a band for the remainder of the show.  Rare songs such as “Ambulance Blues,” “Sad Movies,” and “Love Art Blues” populated the acoustic portion that were also sprinkled with hits/favorites like “Old Man,” “Heart Of Gold,” and “A Man Needs A Maid.”  The second portion of the set had some of Young’s best rock songs that are sorely underplayed.  “The Loner,” “Winterlong,” “Don’t Cry No Tears,” and “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” were some of those great tunes that he broke out before ending strongly with the classics “Cinnamon Girl” and “Cortez The Killer.”  This concert also had several songs from his CHROME DREAMS II album (the sequeled title adopted due to the popularity of a bootleg containing a shelved album, CHROME DREAMS).

This concert was different in that it was not associated with a tour to support specific material.  Though Young is constantly releasing albums, the most recent being A LETTER HOME recorded on Jack White’s Voice-O-Graph machine which came out in April of this year.  And with another one, STORYTONE, released a few days ago, it was interesting that this material did not dominate the set, though songs from these offerings were highlighted.

Young has been playing sporadic solo shows between dates with his popular backing band, Crazy Horse, that have felt like proper retrospective shows.  They focus on his most popular and enduring works.  Young has always done his own thing.  There is a lengthy history of this elsewhere so I won’t go into detail about the abandoned tours and record label disputes, but suffice to say that Young does what he wants and plays what he wants.  This tour started off at New York’s famous Carnegie Hall with four dates in January.  Since then he has been doing infrequent dates in major cities (Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia) showcasing a similar set of his classic tunes.  I cringe to say it in regards to most performers, only because it comes with a lot of baggage and varied meaning, but it’s as close to a greatest hits tour as Neil Young has ever gotten.  Unlike many performers, this is a different approach for him.

The more recent dates, including this Boston show, have begun to see changes in the set to incorporate Young’s newer material, but it remained a show filled with more distinctly popular songs than previous tours.

The first half of the set, before a lengthy intermission, was introspective featuring two covers from A LETTER HOME, “Reason to Believe” and “If You Could Read My Mind,” that were prefaced with stories from Young.  These were personal and inspiring songs to Young and he shared this with a casualness that matched the home atmosphere.  He doesn’t address the audience by facing us, but rather looks downward, wanders, adjusts his guitar, and you can’t help but believe we just happen to be there, witnessing the show and story.  It doesn’t feel as contrived as most concert banter tends to be (though we’re obviously not the first audience to hear these introductions).  Young is saying something as much to himself as he is to sharing something of himself with us.  It seems to be a theme of Young’s recently with two books he wrote being published in the past few years.  The first, WAGING HEAVY PEACE, is an autobiography.  The second, SUPER DELUXE, published this October, weaves his love of cars (“beautiful pieces of sculpture” in Young’s words) with stories of his life they evoke.  It’s a second autobiography told through a passionate lens.

As I mentioned, the first half of the set was intimate with songs that seemed to directly comment on Young’s life.  He is currently divorcing his wife Pegi, after 36 years of marriage, and has begun a new relationship with actress Daryl Hannah.  This knowledge changes the perspective of songs like “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and the opener “From Hank To Hendrix” with its lyrics, “Now we’re headed for the big divorce, California-style” and chorus that asks, “Can we get it together, can we still stand side by side?”  This is properly balanced with the positive aspects of love in “I’m Glad I Found You” and “Mellow My Mind” celebrating youth and possibility (“Make me feel like a schoolboy on good time.”).

Young closed out the first set with “Old Man” and broke for an intermission that lasted about 30 minutes.  It felt a bit too long and I wondered about how effective he would be to find the groove he had gotten into after only 10 songs, and how quickly he’d be able to connect to the audience again.

Young sounded nearly identical to his younger self, though a bit weaker in places, but aging better than many vocalists his age.  His guitar playing was lighter, including more playing with his fingers over a pick.  Young has always been a strong strummer, the evidence is written on his guitars that are worn from a heavy hand that has scraped across the body of his instruments.  The guitarist for Crazy Horse, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, has commented on the state of Young’s wrist, which he has to tape before every performance to cut down on pain.  Indeed, red tape was visible on his arm, but it didn’t limit or impede the quality of his playing, maybe a bit of the force of it, but the softer approach suited the venue and set.

My concerns about the length of the break and Young’s health quickly vanquished when he returned for the second set.  The lovely “Pocahontas,” aided by the 12-string guitar accompaniment and it’s Slacked D/Dropped C tuning (for you guitarists out there, from low to high CGCFAD) hummed beautifully.  Lowering the tuning on any guitar loosens the tension on the strings and allows them to ring and rattle which can create some wonderful sonic landscapes.  Indeed Young transported us into the set, singing of his “Indian rug” as we could see hanging in the backdrop, and finishing the song by kissing the wooden Indian on the cheek.  An interesting interaction with the lone set prop and an ode to a culture that Young has entwined in song and his life.

There was one lyrical change in the song.  In the final verse Young sings, “Marlon Brando, Pocahontas, and me,” but this live version replaced Brando with Barack Obama.  If the first half of the set was about Young, it was clear he was making the second half about us and the world we live in.  It was a reminder about how vocal Young has been about social issues and how potently he is able to make those statements through music.

The back-to-back appearance of “Ohio” and “Southern Man” were two definitive calls to action written by Young to wake us up.  “Ohio” is about the death of 4 students in the Kent State shootings in 1970 where National Guardsmen opened fire on protesting college students.  Young asks us, sometimes directly, in this song, “What would you do if you found her dead on the ground?  How could you run when you know?”  It never fails to send chills down my spine every time I hear those lines, no matter how many times I hear the song.  On “Southern Man” I get a similar reaction from the way Young cries, “I heard screamin’ and bullwhips crackin’.  How long, how long?”  He paints a vivid and violent image of the South under slavery, questioning not only its protracted existence in American history, but also the profits and gain made off of the pain and suffering of others.  Young directly asks, “Southern Man, when will you pay them back?”  Young has never shied from asking the listener a candid question, simultaneously evoking a reaction, forcing us to think how we are implicated in these events, and asking what we can do.  He doesn’t often offer an answer and they’re questions that can’t be simply approached.

It takes little time to see how relevant Young’s questions still are, even over 40 years after they’ve been written.  The continued question of institutionalized racism in America in the actions of police officers, especially in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri this year shine a light on a problem continually plagues our country and culture.  “Ohio,” though focused on a specific time and place that feels far removed, suddenly moves closer in time and space as we confront the militarization of the police that has been occurring, related not only to the events in Ferguson.

For me, “Southern Man” was the powerful apex of the show.  It helped connected the past and present through Young’s introduction and performance.  Both “Ohio” and “Southern Man” used Young’s Double Drop D tuning, where the high and low E strings on the guitar are tuned down, giving a darkness to the topics that is mimicked musically.

Young used these songs to lead us to his most recent question, and the title of one of his newest compositions, “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” that asks us to do our part to combat global warming in order to preserve the world we inhabit for ourselves and future generations.  Young discussed the recent decline of animal species, particularly fish, and as he played, invited us to join along, leading the audience through a call and response.  He asks a series of questions in the chorus: “Who’s gonna stand up and save the earth?  Who’s gonna say she’s had enough?  Who’s gonna take on the big machine?”  This all rises in power to a soft denouement and a (sort of) answer, “This all starts with you and me.”

“Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” was followed with a softer song carrying an identical theme.  “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” was the only song Young played on the pump organ.  This choice made Young’s enunciation clear.  Neil Young is passion, plain and simple.  He’s by no means the most gifted guitarist, songwriter, pianist, or performer, but it comes from an honest place that many artists and people struggle to reach.  To Young this feels casual and a place he can visit or reach into with ease, either in private or public.  He seems to be particularly interested in taking us there with him given this tour and his books.

The show ended with “Thrasher,” as Young returned after a short encore break with a cowboy hat and harmonica.  The song ends with the lyrics, “But I’ll know the time has come, to give what’s mine.”  Young has been giving himself in a whole new way this tour, offering the most memorable and best of what he’s known for while still managing to retain his identity and tell a story in the way he’s arranged the songs.  As “Thrasher” states: he’s been spending his “one-way ticket to the land of truth” throughout his life and it’s good to know he still has his “own row left to hoe” after all this time.  I’m happy we have artists like Young who are willing to take us on a journey with him, wherever it leads, and that he isn’t solely concerned about where he’s going, but where we are all going.

Some stray observations that didn’t quite fit in with this review:

– As people called out songs they wanted to hear as Young decided what to play by gazing around the arrangement of guitars, he joked that he called this portion of the show, “Song Titles.”  I laughed as he’s always done whatever he’s felt like doing in his life and it would take a concert of about 150 songs for me to feel completely satisfied so anything he wants to play is good with me.

– His crew seemed to struggle with standing the music sheets on both of the pianos.  It was unclear if Young was changing his mind about songs, but there was definitely a problem with the sheet music stand on one of the pianos.  Whatever the issue was, Young threw the sheets down when it became a problem to cheers from the audience.

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