Concert Review of the Moment: Neil Young in Albany, NY - May 18, 2010
The Neil Young Concert Review of the Moment is from Albany, NY, May 18, 2010 by Chris:
For those of you who still want to be surprised (as if anything else is expected at a Neil show), read no further. Consider this a "spoiler warning" if you will. I had the good fortune of seeing Neil on the first leg of the tour so, like every else in the audience, I was in a position of having absolutely no idea what to expect. This uncertainty lent even more excitement to some of the moments I'm about to describe.
Mine as well arrange this report in accordance with the chronology of the show. So, first let me confess to knowing very little about Bert Jansch, the opening act. I know he's one of Neil's biggest influences and I know that Neil essentially ripped (albeit subconsciously) the opening chords from Jansch's "Needle of Death" to Neil's own "Ambulance Blues." My unfamiliarity with Jansch's music probably doesn't make me the best person to judge his performance. All I could say was that the 7 or 8 songs he played (most of which were bluesy/folky acoustic numbers originating in Britain and Ireland) all had the feeling of a nice warm blanket (rendered even nicer by the dreary, rainy night here in Albany).
As unexciting and uninformative the following portrayal may be, one word kept coming into my head to describe Jansch's tunes: pleasant. That's not to say his songs were in any way simplistic or basic or boring. On the contrary, the guy can fucking play the acoustic guitar. And while Neil Young can stand up to him in terms of the emotional quality of his playing, Jansch runs circles around Neil technique-wise. The only real complaint I had with Jansch's set is that idiot audience members kept yelling "Neil" between songs. Someday I'll write an article about proper concert etiquette because I find it fucking appalling the amount of buffoonery at what should be an intimate performance. Anyway, Jansch played for about 40 minutes after starting right on time (8 PM).
After a brief intermission, I returned to my seat (which was located, by the way, in the 7th row. Cost me a pretty penny, but I spare no expense when Neil comes to town. Plus, this may be the last chance I get to see him. You just never know with Neil). To my surprise and delight, the stagehands were placing electric guitars in a semi-circle around the stage: I spotted what looked like a rusty Strat, his white Gretsch, and, of course, Old Black. I, too, was under the impression that it would all be acoustic so I was excited to see his axes at his disposal.
At about 9 PM, the lights darkened, and Neil nonchalantly walked across the stage to uproarious applause. He picked up his acoustic and his harm and got right down to business with "My My, Hey Hey." Well, he tried to anyway. He got through the opening riff and then hellacious feedback caused him to stop a few times. Once he finished the song, he plowed right ahead with "Tell Me Why" and "Helpless." Overall, a nice way to start a show. You just know he had to appease the asshole "fans" who would have demanded a refund if he didn't play at least a couple songs from his more commercially successful albums. Since he followed with a string of head-scratchers (which I happened to love), it was clear he was just getting the acoustic gems (all of which were nice) out of the way.
Because Neil is Neil he followed the three opening fan-favorites with three new songs, all on what looked like a strat that I had never seen him play: 4) "I'm Working(?)", a tongue-in-cheek, often ironic-seeming ballad about what we do on Earth (work) compared to what people do in heaven. I felt the song caved in under its own weight, but one of the last lines "And I know Ben's with you [in heaven?]" gave the song an emotional, serious, personal touch it badly needed. 5) "The Dusty Valley(?)", a Thrasher-esque epic of white westward expansion and colonization over Native Americans. Like many of Neil's historical-based songs, this one also fast-forwarded a couple hundred years to our current state. 6) "Love and War(?)," a commentary on religious fanaticism as it relates to both war and love. Neil's wordplay and observations make this number a great one. The chronological progression of the songs also happens to parallel that of their quality; that is, I think "Love and War" was the best sounding, tightest, most releaseable-ready song of the three.
Back to the hits. The 7th song played was "Down by the River" on Old Black. It was the tightest, shortest non-acoustic versions of the song that I've ever heard. He dropped the last verse and the jams between the remaining 2 verses were just simple variations--if not altogether repeats--of that wonderful Em/A opening chord riff. Hearing Old Black growl during the bridge made the song certainly worthwhile. After its conclusion, he played an unrecognizable, angry, foot-stomping riff that kept everybody in suspense as to the song's identity. And then: "When I was hitchhiker, on the road." I like to think he played the song for me personally because it was the last song that I played at my house before leaving for the show. Of course, he was really playing it for the diehards. Whatever his intended audience, though, is sort of besides the point. What's important is taht everyone seemed to love it and it was during "Hitchhiker" that Neil was at his most pissed off and at his best for the night. What was also cool was he added a verse at the end of the song that mentioned his family and his wife--an uplifting take on what is a somber song.
He then shelved Old Black for the Gretsch and went right into Ohio. Nothing remarkable here, but the crisp, precise guitar playing of Neil and his decision to replace the 2nd verse with "Oohs" and "Aahs" (a la Massey Hall's version), certainly made the song enjoyable. He played "Sign of Love (?)" next with the same Gretsch guitar. Don't really remember much about the song, what could very well say something about the song's enduring quality (or maybe more about the fact that it was dark as night in there and I could barely see my own hand as it tried to write).
The 11th song was a bubble-gum sounding piano ballad that went back and forth between two treble chords. It was dedicated to Leia (spelling?), a "new friend of Neil's." No, this won't be the next "After the Gold Rush" or "A Man Needs A Maid," but for what Neil was trying to do with the song, I think he succeeded, if only on a personal level.
Next came "After the Gold Rush" on an organ, updated so that mother nature is "on the run in the '21st Century'" as opposed to the "1970s." The organ was positioned up against the far wall so Neil's back was to the audience. I found this such a wonderful symbol of Neil's "I don't give a fuck" attitude (then again, maybe he just couldn't put the organ anywhere else, what with the two pianos and handful of guitars taking up the space on the small stage).
I was happy he stayed on the album "After the Gold Rush" with "I Believe in You," my personal favorite from the disc. Neil played this on a piano and his voice, while certainly lacking the reach and grab-you-by-the-soul falsetto of what we hear on "Massey Hall," is still in remarkable shape. Yes, he takes less chances with his singing (and, at his age, who could blame him?), but I didn't hear him screw up once.
He followed "I Believe in You" with an environmental epic on his Gretsch called "All Around(?)". What I remember most vividly from this song was that one of the lines keeps repeating the word "vibrate" or "vibration," and as Neil belted out the line, he would strum bass notes on his Gretsch, sending feedback-laced sound waves through the crowd, causing our bodies to literally vibrate. It was a nice, visceral touch on what seemed to me (on first listen, mind you) a fairly forgettable song.
At this point, someone from the audience yelled "Old Man!" Neil, sharp as ever, replies, "I know...64 and there's so much more," in his typical Canadian humor. This guy is just such a master that lines like these seem to just roll right through him.
For the last two songs of the regular set he brought back Old Black. First, he played "Cortez the Killer" and then "Cinnamon Girl." Like "Down by the River," both of these songs lacked the 20 minute guitar solos that peppered the versions of previous electric tours. Not that that's a bad thing. It was refreshing to hear versions of songs that I've never heard. Neil seemed to trust the natural artistic integrity of the sound of Old Black (which, in the days of digital, is wonderfully singular) rather than his own thrashing in communicating much of the ethos of the songs. Of course, letting the beast growl was especially neat to listen to in a small, intimate theater. It had the crisp, precise sound that was missing when I last saw him at Madison Square Garden.
Thanks Chris! Awesome job.
Also, see more concert reviews of Neil Young in Albany, NY, May 18, 2010 and Neil Young's "Twisted Road" Concert Tour Schedule and Reviews.