[ATTENDED: October 8, 2014] An Evening with Neil Young
Sarah has wanted to see Neil Young for decades. However, we’ve had bad luck (or high prices) with tickets so we never went. But when I saw that he was performing in Philly for not too too expensive, it was time to get Sarah to see her man.
I myself have enjoyed Neil Young for a while too, so this wasn’t like a sacrifice or anything. I had just never gotten around to seeing him either. Over the years he has played with some amazing other bands (not to mention Crazy Horse), like Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam–two tours that I should have gone to but didn’t. But this night was all about Neil. It was just him and his guitar and his guitar and his guitar and his guitar and his guitar and his guitar and his guitar and his banjo and his piano and his piano and his organ and a bunch of harmonicas. (He had about 8 guitars on stage and he played every one of them).
I don’t usually check setlist before shows because I like to be surprised, but with Neil, ever the curmudgeon, you never really know what you’ll get–perhaps he’ll do an all Trans night. So I scanned a set, saw a few hits and felt secure in letting him give us whatever he wanted.
Outside the theater–the Academy of Music, to which I had never been–there was a big silver bus (not an Econoline van) with the license plate ZUMA, and we knew we were in the right place. Then we entered the old building and went up the less than impressive stairs (it looked like a middle school stairwell). And we proceeded to go up and up and up and up to our seats. We were about ten rows from the top of this building. And the theater was breathtaking (especially since we were out of breath from climbing 8 flights of stairs).
But it was stunning to be eye to eye with a chandelier. However, the building is not deep, so we weren’t that far from the stage. Of course, mostly we saw the top of Neil’s head (and the top of his piano–which was cool).
Before the lights dimmed we got the great announcement to “please refrain from shouting out song titles,” which I loved–if only the latecomers had heard that message as well.
And then, lights went out, flashlights appeared and Neil shuffled on stage–in jeans, a T-shirt, a flannel type shirt over it–and sat down in the middle of the stage. He picked up one of the guitars (he already had his harmonica clipped on) and busted out “From Hank to Hendrix.”
Okay, so I’ve been listening to Neil for a long time–I’ve gotten nearly all of his records, I’ve heard a bunch of live things, saw him recently on Jimmy Kimmel–nevertheless I was absolutely blown away by how good his voice sounded. It was clear and strong and nothing like the 68 year old guy shuffling around on stage should be able to possess. And his guitar playing sounded crisp and clean, his harmonica was spot on–it was so perfect sounding. Perhaps it was the venue, but it was the purest sounding concert I may have ever heard.
When he finished the song, Sarah, overcome said, “Okay we can go now.” That’s how good it was. [You can read her review here]. But of course we didn’t go. We sat, rapt as he picked guitars to play, “This one was a gift from Stephen Stills.” [Audience guy: How is he?] “He’s good.” And on that guitar he played a Buffalo Springfield song. Then he played “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” At this point I stopped trying to keep track of the guitars he played.
But then he moved to the grand piano. And played a song I didn’t know. Now I have nearly every Neil album (except the new covers album, which I figured he’s play stuff from) and he has at least 50 songs that everyone knows. So how could he be playing a song I didn’t know? Because it’s new (he has another album due out next month). In fact, he played 3 new songs, and the amazing thing about Neil’s songwriting is that they sounded so much like his music that I wasn’t even sure if I had heard them before. There wasn’t that disorienting “new” song business, it just sounded like a classic song that he had written. This was especially true for me with “Plastic Flowers” which has a gorgeous familiar melody.
Then he busted out the banjo to play “Mellow My Mind” from Tonight’s the Night. And his ease on that instrument was as effortless as each other that he played.
He played a few covers on the upright piano. This piano was closest to us and it was awesome to watch his fingers glide over the keys. I’ve never really thought of him as an especially good piano player, but he looked, again, so effortless–there was no chance that it wouldn’t sound amazing.
Just as I was concerned that there wouldn’t be more familiar songs, he busted out “Harvest” and then ended the first set with “Old Man.”
Throughout the set he talked about his sponsor: water, as he took sips from an interesting large glass bottle. The crowd (I joked that we were in the cheap pothead section (and someone did light up, to my surprise)) was alternately utterly silent and respectful and then whooping and raucous. The respectfulness was awesome as you could hear everything he did. But then between songs there were incessant shouts of “I love you” and requests for songs (which he ignored). And yet, when someone said something worth commenting on, he did (so it was clear he could hear everything that was said). Someone complemented his boots and he seemed genuinely flattered by it.
For the second set he came out with “Pocahontas” (substituting a verse about Barack Obama for Marlon Brando) and “Heart of Gold.” I need to mention at this point the fascinating way he seemed to wander around deciding which instrument to pick up, or which song to play next. And yet, the set list is pretty much identical every night, so that’s kind of funny. As I say, he seemed to be like a doddering old guy walking around (at least from our perspective) and yet his playing was great and his spoken word was sharp and alert.
When he sat down and played “Man Needs a Maid” (a song that I don’t know if anyone really likes), there was a strange wave of tittering through the crowd. I have no idea why–it almost seemed like half the people didn’t know the song and they thought the words were funny. And yet in this raw piano setting, it sounded amazing. It was even interesting when he played the small electronic keyboard that the roadie brought out at mid-set for the “orchestral” section. Although I don’t live the song, it sounded really good in this context. And his “explanation” of the song, that he saw a light switch that had two buttons with “man” and “maid (or possibly “made”) was funny if not enlightening.
Then he sat down again and played, to my utter delight, “Ohio” and “Southern Man.” “Ohio” is one of my favorite songs ever (how did I never realize it his literally one verse and one chorus). And while it definitely lacks something without the harmonies, it took on an especial urgency in the way he sang it. And “Southern Man,” wow. I’ve heard that song a million times and yet hearing it in this format–just him and his guitar, I really reacted on how powerful, how brutal those lyrics are (same with “Ohio.”) I got goose bumps. How was it ever a single? The imagery is just horrific–it’s amazing that he can write things like that and also such sweet love songs. He also said that there will never be another CSN&Y tour (evidently he only likes S).
Throughout the set, he peppered us with statistics about the dire state of the planet (and urged us to buy his organic cotton shirts, which I thought was pretty funny). Then he played what I gather is his new single: “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” (and Save the Earth). There was an obnoxious audience member behind us who demanded that everyone stand up while he sang this, so I did not. But the people on the floor all did (and a reviewer from XPN that Sarah read said it was a very motivational moment) and perhaps if I was caught up I would have been moved to do so as well (although I know I am not going to save the earth, especially not after all the dire information he fed us).
Then he moved up to that piano ion the back, the one with the tree stump for a bench and a totem pole in front of it. And it turned out to be a pipe organ. Which sounded utterly amazing. He played “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” from Ragged Glory and while I didn’t really recognize it, it sounded wonderful (although we laughed that he lugged that massive thing with him to play one song). The death of the earth thing was definitely a downer, but then he told us that he still loves life and enjoys prancing around and frolicking with his friends, which was a very funny image to transition on.
I was delighted when he played “Harvest Moon” although I was dismayed that he played it right after the yahoo in front of us shouted it out–you only encourage them– and then had to be disgruntled while the same people who requested the song proceed to talk all the way throughout about how happy they were that he was playing it (I am clearly in the Neil Young curmudgeon mode). But then he played a wonderful piano version of “After the Gold Rush” (changing 1970s to 21 century) and this time everyone seemed to sing along like it was a campfire..
That was not such a rousing song to end on, so when he left I imagined he’d play an encore or two. And it was the first time that I anticipated what he might play–so many amazing songs to choose from–“Like a Hurricane,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “Sugar Mountain.” So when he played “Thrasher,” a song I vaguely know, and played it rather slowly, I was a little bummed. It was not the rousing-encore-song-I’m-gonna-sing-all-night that I was imagining he’d end with.
But that’s okay because there were so many highlights, it’s hard to begrudge a less popular encore.
I had hoped he’d play “Powderfinger” but realized that it wouldn’t have translated well to solo acoustic. (And honestly Band of Horses did it so well this summer that I didn’t need to hear it tonight), or any of the other big rockers like “Cortez the Killer.” But that just means he absolutely has to tour with Crazy Horse next year so I can get the other full Neil experience.
I couldn’t help compare this show to King Crimson just a month earlier (because I parked in the same parking lot in Philly). King Crimson simply blew my mind with their precision and technical expertise. Conversely Neil’s show did not blow me away because he made it so effortless. He just exudes pure musicianship. I have never seen a performer who could so casually and comfortably play and sing everything. The way he held his vocals notes perfectly between piano notes. The way he sustained the guitar as the chords changed. The way his hands just floated over the piano. Even the way he pumped the organ. And the harmonica (or harmonicas) were note perfect. (Okay, he did play one or two wrong chords, but he quickly rectified that). He was clearly born to play, and he is so good at it. It was an absolute pleasure to see him.
Although we did not buy any organic T-shirts (I really didn’t like the design at all). And out of defernce to Neil, I didn’t take any mid-show pictures (they would have come out bad anyway).
- Set 1:
- From Hank to Hendrix
- On the Way Home (Buffalo Springfield song)
- Only Love Can Break Your Heart
- I’m Glad I Found You
- Mellow My Mind
- Reason to Believe (Tim Hardin cover)
- If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot cover)
- Old Man
- Set 2:
- Heart of Gold
- Plastic Flowers
- A Man Needs a Maid
- Ohio (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song)
- Southern Man
- Who’s Gonna Stand Up?
- Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)
- When I Watch You Sleeping
- Harvest Moon
- After the Gold Rush