Force of Nature: Review of Neil Young at the Ryman, 6/2/10
Photo by The Ryman
Force of Nature – Review of Neil Young at the Ryman
by Faith Phillips
A burning, bright day retreated suddenly at the advance of a summer squall in Nashville last Wednesday. Threatening skies churned out a torrent of rain, pouring down in sheets on the downtown area. Outside the Ryman Auditorium, an unsuspecting crowd scattered in all directions, seeking shelter beneath the awning of a parking garage and nearby buildings. For a brief moment, the streams washing down 4th Avenue were reminiscent of recent events. Barely a month has passed since three days of relentless rain sent the swollen Cumberland River coursing out of its banks, causing widespread destruction in the Nashville area.
Just before the doors opened, the waterworks shut off and hundreds of people made their way into the venue, clothes and hair dripping with rain. The drenched gathering had braved the storm to witness the Nashville stop of Neil Young’s Twisted Road tour at the Ryman.
The Ryman Auditorium itself is captivating. Originally constructed to serve as a church, its structure is quite literally that of a cathedral. Curved wooden pews surround the stage, seating a mere 2300 patrons. Giant panels of stained glass filter pale light onto the backs of the audience and upon the foot of the stage. The building was home to the Grand Ole Opry until 1974, and at one time served as the stage for The Johnny Cash Show. It is now known as The Mother Church of Country Music, and for good reason. The aesthetics of the place serve as a conductor for an experience that combines both the musical and the spiritual. It was within this context that Neil Young took the stage, accompanied by Hank Williams’ old guitar.
At the sight of him, the audience exploded into a roaring applause. The artist very calmly walked to the front of the stage and took his seat. He casually dipped his harmonica in a bucket and shook the water out upon the stage. With the crowd continuing to applaud, he began to roll up his shirt sleeves. Here was just another working man, preparing himself for the job.
The first few selections were classic Neil Young. He began with My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue), followed by Tell Me Why and Helpless. His one-of-a-kind high tenor cried out, “it’s better to burn out, cause rust never sleeps”. The solo performance beautifully met with the unique acoustics of the venue, creating an overwhelming wave of sound that flooded the entire building.
The middle part of the set was generally comprised of new material. His lyrics touched on a myriad of intensely personal subjects. You Never Call seemed to detail the lonely reality of losing an old friend. Peaceful Valley mourned a world besieged by violence and environmental ruin. In Love & War, Mr. Young seemed to question himself, singing, “I sang about justice and I hit a bad chord, but I still try to sing about love and war”.
Afterward, Young walked to the rear of the stage and returned with Old Black – his famously modified 1953 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop. The stage was at once lit completely in burning red light as the unmistakable introduction to Down By the River rang out. He next went to a golden organ to sing After the Gold Rush. A silhouette of vines fell upon the back of his flannel work shirt as he played. The lyrics, “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century” were sobering, considering he first delivered this same message some forty years ago.
Perhaps the most emotionally charged moment came when the musician went to a pink piano covered in red roses to play I Believe in You. His voice was never more vulnerable. Regarding this particular song, Mr. Young has written that it “says all there is to say”.
At its conclusion, the room fell quiet for a moment and a brash audience member yelled out, “Whatever you want, Neil!” The performer only nodded, as he turned to pick up his electric White Falcon and began Rumblin’ . The low, hard vibration of the guitar’s sound rattled a display case containing Connie Smith’s guitar with such force, that it seemed on the verge of shattering into a thousand points of glass.
Pounding versions of Cortez the Killer and Cinnamon Girl followed, as Young leaned in hard and stepped off the rhythm with his trademark stomp dance.
At the first encore, he once again held Hank’s guitar and sang Old Man. The final encore was the new song, Walk With Me. It could have been directed at his faithful fans: “I feel your love, I feel your strong love, I feel your patience, I feel your strength, I feel your faith in me, I’ll never let you down, if you’ll just walk with me”. He brought the song and the evening to a close by turning his back to the audience, walking to the amplifiers, and generating intense audio feedback that pulsated through the crowd.
As enraptured fans made their way out into the night, the lovely calm summer sky felt a bit strange, since only a few hours previous the storm had raged outside. But isn't that always our experience with a force of nature? Powerless, we have no course of action other than to look on in wonder, left in its wake to consider the implications of what we have witnessed.
- Faith Phillips
Thank you Faith!
More reviews on Neil Young's "Twisted Road" Concert Tour Spring 2010.
Neil Young - Austin, 6-5-10
Photo by Alberto Martinez / AMERICAN-STATESMAN