Never having been to Neil Young’s house, I can only imagine what it’s like inside.
And I imagine that, somewhere, he has a room that looks much like the stage did last night (May 6) at the Chicago Theatre. Maybe it’s down in the basement, a sort of musical rec room — the place where he goes to practice old riffs, write new songs, or just play. Play in the sense of playing with his toys. Neil Young’s solo concert Friday felt like a glimpse into that room, that space where he’s just playing for himself.
As he did during the first half (the solo portion) of a 2007 concert inside this same beautiful, historic theater, Young casually wandered around the stage in between some of the songs, looking at his instruments as if he were trying to decide what to do next. To some extent, this is surely an act that he’s putting on, since he was working from a set list. Was he toying with the audience, to see what sort of reaction he’d get if he walked up to the grand piano and then walked away from it, only to strap on an electric guitar? Or was he wandering around in his own little world, oblivious of the audience eagerly watching his every move? (Probably the former.) It’s not as if Young didn’t acknowledge the audience’s presence. At several points, he raised an arm above his head, like a baseball player stepping out of the dugout and tipping his hat after a home run. And Young has the odd, endearing habit of applauding himself — as he came out onto the stage at the outset of the concert and the audience broke out into cheers, Young clapped, too.
Three keyboards were arrayed around Young: an upright piano, an organ in an old, ornate cabinet, and a grand piano painted in splotches of orange and pink. He played one song on each — hauling these big instruments around the country with him like totems, as if each song must be played on the particular instrument to which it belongs. A wooden statute of an American Indian stood at the back of the stage, and Young walked over to it and touched it once, as if he were putting his hand on the shoulder of a friend. Later, when Young was playing “Cortez the Killer,” a song about the European conquest of American Indians, he walked back over to the wooden Indian. Facing away from the audience, Young played his solo to the statute, slapping the body of his guitar to make the notes reverberate.
This concert was mostly about guitar, and Young played a few of them over the course of the night. Wearing a white hat with a black band, a white sport jacket, black T-shirt and blue jeans, Young sat down with an acoustic guitar to start the concert, playing “Hey Hey My My,” “Tell Me Why” and “Helpless.” The acoustics in the big auditorium were perfect, and while Young looked pretty tiny from my seat halfway up the balcony, it sounded as if he were right next to me, plucking his guitar strings and singing those songs in a voice not all that much changed from how it sounded when he was a young musician decades ago. His harmonica solos on these acoustic numbers were one of the most remarkable things he did all evening — improvising, pushing, jumping across the melody with the same searching spirit he has demonstrated in so many terrific electric guitar solos over the years.
The harmonica also prompted one of Young’s few bits of stage banter. In between songs, he shook some water out of it. (Was that just his saliva? Or did he put the harmonica in some water? I couldn’t tell.)
“I was told it’s bad to put my harmonicas in water,” he said. “A manufacturer told me. ‘Bullshit,’ that’s what I say.”
Young played the songs from his most recent album, Le Noise, in the same solo-guitar style they use on the record, a sort of hybrid between the usual sounds of acoustic and electric guitar — one guitar echoing around the room with a sound that seems multilayered, as if each string is a separate instrument. As impressive as this was, I still think the songs on Le Noise are just good, not great. The record and this live performance of those songs mark an interesting new direction for Young, but the melodies and lyrics were no match for the classic songs that made up the rest of the set.
The other time Young spoke was when he finally sat down at one of the keyboards, the upright piano. He introduced a song apparently called “Leia” (the Sugar Mountain website reports that this is an unreleased song he played for the first time in 2010).
“A song now for all the little people,” Young said. “The tiny little people with big smiles. Those too small to be here tonight. … They wanted to come, but couldn’t come. Mom said, ‘Nope.’ And a song for Grandpa. He was able to get here.”
The sing-songy tune that followed did seem a bit like a children’s ditty. Young moved to the organ and strapped on a harmonica for “After the Gold Rush,” playing odd runs of notes with a circus calliope effect as he sang — changing one time reference in the lyrics. “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century,” he sang. And then he moved to the grand piano for “I Believe in You.”
Young also played electric guitar, using that instrument mostly for older classics. The hum of the strings was muted, muffled almost down to little more than bass notes, on the verses of “Down by the River,” but whenever he got to the chorus, the guitar came roaring to life. The riff from “Ohio” was loud and chunky from beginning to end, however, and Young’s iconic lyrics — dashed off three decades ago in reaction to a galvanizing tragedy — felt as urgent as if they were written today.
As the concert neared its end, Young returned to the electric guitar and stood a while, playing around with the hum and buzz his instrument was making, without allowing a melody to emerge from the noise too quickly. After a few minutes, it became clear that he was playing “Cortez the Killer.” Singing and playing electric guitar without a band can seem a little odd — acoustic guitar is the default instrument for a solo singer-songwriter, and hearing electric guitar makes you think, “Where’s the rest of the band?” Playing without a band had pluses and minuses for Young. It gave him freedom to stretch out his tunes, to let the notes hover a little bit longer before he sang another verse. And it focused our attention on every little nuance of the noise coming out of that guitar. But Young’s a master at playing epic guitar solos in the context of a full band, getting sparks of energy and inspiration from the other musicians playing behind him. That isn’t what this tour is about, however. The result was that much of Young’s guitar playing was more impressionistic: Instead of making symphonies that rise and fall with dramatic melodies, he was more interested in shaking his instrument and seeing what fell out. An impressive spectacle in its own way.
The last song before the encore was “Cinnamon Girl,” and when it came to that false ending — the moment when the song seems to end, just before that last little fillip of one guitar melody finishes it off — Young paused, as if he might not bother playing it. The crowd erupted into applause. Did people think the song was over? Or were they egging him on to finish that song? Young raised his hand in the air once again, acknowledging his fans, and then he finally played that little riff, repeating it several times, stretching out the song for just a minute longer.
Young (who played “Walk With Me” from Le Noise for his encore) was a marvel to see and hear Friday night. The concert wasn’t quite as epic as his 2007 show at the Chicago Theatre, but it was another excellent performance from this always-intriguing musician.
As a nice bonus, the concert also featured the great British singer-songwriter-guitarist Bert Jansch as the opening act. The understated Jansch played solo acoustic guitar, and the room filled with the sparkling, liquid sound of those bending strings. At the end of his set, he modestly remarked, “I want to thank you all for being so quiet and not throwing anything at me.” The theater was indeed pretty quiet, and Jansch seemed to impress the audience, which surely included many people unfamiliar with his music.