All hail Neil

I see so many concerts that it’s easy to get a little jaded about the whole experience – to take it for granted – but every once in a while, I see a show that reminds me of how special it is to see a great musician performing live. The show last night (Nov. 12) by Neil Young at the Chicago Theatre was one of those concerts.

I’d seen Young only once before – a searing show with Crazy Horse on the Ragged Glory tour. I don’t know why I’ve missed seeing him on so many other occasions, but for some reason, the current Chrome Dreams II tour seemed like a can’t-miss concert. And it was.

Seemingly random letters decorated the skeletal billboards behind the stage – like some sign with missing letters along an old highway. After a pleasant opening set by Neil’s wife, Pegi Young, an announcement urged fans not to call out song requests, since the set list had been predetermined. That did not stop people from yelling out song titles, though, or singing “Happy Birthday” to Neil, who turned 62 yesterday.

Neil played the first half of the show by himself, playing acoustic guitars, banjo and piano on a few newer songs and several classics. Despite some occasional shouts from the crowd – and some signing along – the guitar notes and Neil’s distinctive sounded so crystal clear in that beautiful auditorium. I struck me how similar this felt to some of the more intimate acoustic concerts I’ve seen at places like Schubas. Sure, I was sitting farther back this time (I had a seat near the back of the main floor, with a good view), and the room was much bigger with a lot more listeners, but somehow it felt just as intimate.

Sitting down at a psychedelically painted grand piano, Young played “A Man Needs A Maid,” simulating the string section with a Mellotron-like synthesizer sitting on top of the piano. That made the arrangement a little awkward, but it was charmingly primitive. In between songs during this first set, Young sometimes walked around his instruments in an absent-minded way, as if he were trying to decide what song to play or what instrument to use. There was a second piano over on the other side of the stage, an old upright, and when he sat down there with a harmonica, everyone knew he was about to play “After the Gold Rush.”

Young didn’t talk much. He told one story about catching crawdads when he was in a two-room schoolhouse and scaring girls with them. I was spellbound for this entire set, and I only wish it had gone on a little longer.

After a 20-minute intermission, Young was back with his band (Rick Rosas, Ben Keith and Ralph Molina). The concert featured the unusual gimmick of a painter working on a canvas near the back of the set, who also placed paintings on an easel at the front of the stage. Each painting included the title of the song about to be played. The electric set was a great mix of old and new, opening with classics “The Loner” and “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.” I was ecstatic to hear “Winterlong,” which has always been one of my favorite Neil tunes. (The audience response to it was a little muted, though… maybe I’m alone in the “Winterlong” cult.) My favorite tracks on Chrome Dreams II are the ones where Neil tears it up Crazy Horse-style, and in concerts, these songs sounded perfect alongside the old ones. In particular, the set closing epic “No Hidden Path” was a stunning showcase for Young’s electric guitar soloing. The song went on and on, each moment more dramatic than the one before (or so it seemed), finally bringing the crowd to its feet with a mid-song standing ovation.

Other guitarists are more virtuosic, but few have ever bettered Young at feedback-drenched solos. There’s something perfect about the sound he hit upon in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He has such an unusual, intuitive sense of timing when he hits those notes, such a perfect sense of when to make a note loud and when to make it a glancing, half-played clink. And when Neil stretches out, letting a guitar solo take him wherever it will take him, all sense of passing time seems to vanish.

For his encore, Young played “Cinnamon Girl,” that great song that doesn’t sound the least bit dated, with that great chunky guitar riff and that unexpected flourish at the end when the song, by all expectations, should have already ended. As that song finished, a little keyboard decorated with angel wings (or something along those lines) descended from the ceiling. After warming up for a minute with some guitar noodling, Young launched into the opening melody of “Like a Hurricane.” The song sounded fabulous, both during the big chorus (with backup vocals from Pegi Young and Anthony Crawford, who also played keyboards on a few songs) and the extended guitar jams. In the final verse, Young echoed the vocal melody on his guitar, deconstructing the song for a moment before returning one last time to the magnificent chorus.

Watching Young roaming the stage with his electric guitar, watching his fingers roaming up and down the neck of his guitar in search of that perfect note, I thought he seemed as alive as he ever has. It was just about everything I wanted from a Neil Young concert (although, like Dylan or Waits, he has such a huge number of songs that he easily could have played an entirely different set list and pleased me). Certainly one of the year’s best concerts, and a contender for my all-time list.

Set list
ACOUSTIC: From Hank To Hendrix / Ambulance Blues / Sad Movies / A Man Needs A Maid / No One Seems To Know / Harvest / After the Gold Rush / Mellow My Mind / Love Art Blues / Love Is a Rose / Old Man

ELECTRIC: The Loner / Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere / Dirty Old Man / Spirit Road / Bad Fog Of Loneliness / Winterlong / Oh, Lonesome Me / The Believer / No Hidden Path

ENCORE: Cinnamon Girl / Like A Hurricane

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