Neil Young at Allstate Arena

As soon as Neil Young walked out onto the stage at the Allstate Arena Tuesday night (Dec. 9), he launched into the sort of live-wire, feedback-drenched guitar solo you’d normally expect to hear at the climax of a concert. It was the opening notes of “Love and Only Love,” which sparked off seven powerful, electric songs in a row – including some of the greatest rock songs from Young’s long history, “Hey Hey, My My,” “Powderfinger” and “Cortez the Killer.” Unlike the 2007 Chicago Theatre show where Young started things off with a beautiful acoustic set, Tuesday’s concert began with Young plunging his audience straight into the loud yet lovely noise coming out of his Gibson Les Paul.

His backing band was not Crazy Horse, but these stalwart players captured all the spirit of Young’s Crazy Horse records. Stomping around the stage with his shaggy gray hair flailing around the balding crest of his head, Young squeezed out his notes as if the energy coming out of those guitar string was charging through his body. After lighting up the stage with those electric songs, Young mellowed out for the concert’s middle portion, playing a few acoustic songs, including “The Needle and the Damage Done” and “Old Man.” He sat down at an old-fashioned pump organ for a haunting solo version of “Mother Earth.”

Young played four brand-new songs in a row, introducing them by saying, “You may not know some of these. That’s OK.” The first of the new songs, “Just Singing a Song,” had a catchy chorus, but the next three felt a little lackluster. One of them, “Fuel Line,” featured awkward lyrics about electric cars. Just as some people in the crowd seemed to get restless with the new material, Young went back to the oldies, closing with the drawn-out solos of “Cowgirl in the Sand” and the pounding chords of “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Young wrote that song to decry the state of affairs in America under the first President Bush. Now, he added some lyrics about the current president-elect: “We’ve got a man of the people saying ‘Yes, we can.’”

For his encore, Young covered the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” When it came time for that swelling orchestra at the end of the song, Young let his guitar do most of the work, producing squalls of noise. He snapped off all the strings, and set down the guitar next to an amp. When the arena’s video screen showed a close-up of the battered guitar, it earned one of the evening’s biggest rounds of applause. As the crescendo ended, Young stepped over to a glockenspiel and played the final resolving chord of “A Day in the Life” with a single ting of the mallets.

It was a strange but thrilling end to another great performance by one of rock music’s true masters.

My review is also up at the Southtown Star newspaper’s Web site.