I’ve been to my fair share of Neil Young shows over the last 10 years. I’ve seen him on the HORDE tour with Crazy Horse. Twice on his solo acoustic jaunt in ’99. Twice again with his Friends and Relatives band in 2000. Three Greendale shows with the Horse in 2001. Five times with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. A little bit of everything, with each show being good, mixed with a little bit of great.
Young’s performance at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis was a whole lot of great, and not much else.
I think what I love best about Neil Young is that he’s not someone who is going to tip his hand, either on an album or during a live performance. You just don’t know what’s going to happen next.
For example, in the middle of his solo upright piano rendition of “After the Gold Rush,” when a wild fan screamed out a request, the 61-year-old Young forgot a verse, stopped, looked agitated, and reasoned with the crowd.
“When people yell, I lose it,” he said, with a sincere tone in his voice. “That’s ok, I’ll go in there again.”
Young, as indestructible as he may seem, was vulnerable, just as the man in the “burned out basement in the yellow haze of the sun.” Like most of the crowd, he was in the moment, needing nowhere else to be. No set list could predict that. No manager, record label, or executive had a say. Neil Young was Neil Young, and even though the performance of one of his best songs was somewhat ruined, the image was burned in my mind, and will be there forever: no one cares more about his music than himself.
“It’s a funny thing with songs, you know,” Young would say after the performance. “Especially those ones you really know…and then, when you’ve sung the song so many times, you really have to take care of the song. You can’t abuse it. So, if you do it too much, then it’s gone. You lost it. It’s easy to lose concentration when you’re doing an old song you’ve done a lot of times, because there’s so many places you’ve been and people you’ve seen, everywhere you’ve been and then where you wrote it, and everybody who has ever said anything to you about it. And…then everybody starts yelling…and…you saw what happened!”
From the opening chords of “From Hank to Hendrix,” Neil Young sat around his semi-circle of guitars, and sang the songs that have made him a legend. “Can we get it together, can we still stand side by side?” Young asked, legs bouncing, shoulders jabbing in the air, looking for their own musical ride. If you’ve seen Young play solo acoustic while sitting down, you know what I’m talking about: he’s sort of in a zone, looking as if he’s in a mini-seizure, perhaps at the end of a cold morning jog. Probably just feeling through the song, maybe just enjoying life a little more than the rest of us, and never being afraid to show it. Not once.
But this is what makes his solo acoustic performances so enjoyable; you get the feeling that Young is being taken over by an unknown variable, be it the theatre he’s comforting, the tuning of his guitar, the restlessness of the crowd; Neil Young is battling, competing with whatever it is he is about to present to his legion of fans. It’s quite a memory, and quite an expression of his art.
And Young gave of some of the best snippets of his art over the years. “Ambulance Blues,” off On the Beach, found him in a low, storytelling voice, producing a gentle sound that followed the message of the song, which wasn’t clear. The crowd cheered when Young grinned wryly and sang, “You’re all just pissing in the wind. You don’t know it, but you are.”
It got better with the unreleased “Sad Movies,” again finding Young in a soft whisper, almost seeing how quiet he could get without alienating the upper balcony. “Sad Movies, they make you cry. Bad movies, they make you wonder why you ever came,” Young sang. “Do something to me, don’t make me wait. Stab something through me, don’t cut out the good things I appreciate.”
Nothing was cut out, not even the psychedelia of “A Man Needs A Maid,” which Young performed “double-duty” on his grand piano, mixed with some kind of added synth or organ (whatever it was, he was having a heck of a time experimenting with it). He didn’t quite hit the high notes here or on “Mellow My Mind,” but the effort was grand. He even pleaded with the crowd to “clap their asses off” during “Love is a Rose.” Their efforts were rewarded with a wonderful set-closing “Heart of Gold,” which sounded as fresh as the cut off of Live at Massey Hall, which was recorded live in Toronto in 1971.
For the second set, Young switched out his acoustic guitar for a ride with a electric makeshift band that featured Ralph Molina on Drums, Ben Keith on guitar and pedal steel, and Rick Rosas on drums. All three are veterans of Young’s past: Molina with Crazy Horse, Keith with the Stray Gators, and Rosas with the Bluenotes.
It couldn’t have worked out any better.
Opening with “The Loner,” Young, dressed in pants that were subtlety splattered with paint, rocked around the stage as if he were trying to get comfortable in an imaginary recliner, while a giant fan blew in his face and through his hair (he would often walk over to enjoy its offerings).
Before each song, a man in a red suit, presumably some sort of devil-artist, maybe trying to find his way back to Greendale, would deliver a painting with a song title before Young ripped into his guitar (this was done while Young would answer a red phone on stage, screaming a message, and slamming it back on its cradle. Before “Dirty Old Man,” I sort of made out Young yelling, “I’m pissed off!!”). Again, this is his way of competing while he’s performing; I don’t think the audience is supposed to “get it,” other than to always be thinking, “there’s more to the picture than meets the eye.”
Young polished off the electric set with a blistering, 22-minute “No Hidden Path.” You could argue that Crazy Horse should have been present for the experience, but, in fact, Young handled himself well without Billy Talbot or Pancho Sampedro by his side. As Young sang, “show me the way, and I’ll follow you today,” it was almost as if he was charging his batteries, getting ready to run an Olympic sprint toward the next round of solos. You won’t find a better song on Chrome Dreams II, and you could also argue that the marathon rendition was the highlight of the night; sure, it was long, but Young remained in control and played with a purpose, something that the encore would do more of: blow away the 5,000 who stayed until the very end.
“Cinnamon Girl” started things off, but “Cortez the Killer” sealed the deal, trailing off with Young repeating the “Dancing across the water” lyric, grinning from ear to ear. He and his band would come back to experiment with an old Squires instrumental, “The Sultan,” but the night had already seemed complete: Young was the one dancing on water, flipping through the pages of his career, accepting the good and the bad, realizing that he’s still alive, still creating, still loved by many. What a killer.
Photos by Kenny Pusey