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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Some Thoughts on Rollin' Down Neil Young's Twisted Road

Herco Flex 50 Guitar Pic
Played by Neil Young on "Cortez The Killer"
Hippodrome, Baltimore, MD, April 28, 2011

Photo by Thrashette

Midway through Neil Young's otherworldly and majestically sublime rendition of "Cortez The Killer" on the second night at Hippodrome in Baltimore (April 28), his guitar pic went flying off of Old Black (his trusty Les Paul guitar) and bounced towards the edge of the stage -- literally inches from us. The pic would lie there until after the concert ended when we could gently pluck it from behind a stage monitor and stash it in our pocket.

The next day we would just sort of rub the pic between our fingers as we reminisced about how just hours earlier it had been used to shred ... on "Cortez The Killer" ... on Ol Black ... solo .. only several feet before our very ears and eyes.

And -- believe it or not -- the evening's memories got even better.


A week or so ago, we were very fortunate to be able to see our 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th shows of Neil Young's Twisted Road tour -- both nights at the Hippodrome in Baltimore (April 27 & 28, 2011) and both nights at the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby, PA (April 30 & May 1, 2011). (Last year, we caught the Boston, Washington and Milwaukee concerts.)


Much has been made of the static setlist of the Twisted Road tour. Some have even gone so far as to derisively call it the "Straight Road Tour" for its predictable and seemingly unchallenging setlist. (All of which is so deja vu like those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing...)

And here's where we beg to differ with those critics who fail to see the curves and forks on the Twisted Road.

Maybe it does take more than a single concert to experience the totality of what Neil has created on this tour in order to appreciate the concert's contradictory simplicity and complexity. Their brilliantly uplifting impact yet starkly somber darkness. Their subdued plugged-in electric songs ("Down By The River") and howling feedback laden acoustic songs ("Rumblin').

But here's our bottom line takeaway -- which is not unique (echoed in thread linked above). The Twisted Road is not some concert with a bunch of random songs. It's a cohesive story set to music.

It's an opera. A play. Performance art.

"I feel your love. I feel your strong love. I feel the patience of unconditional love."

Every small detail of the concerts seem to have been intricately planned and executed:

  • staging in small, older theaters with pristine acoustics
  • instruments arranged just so on stage
  • props used to create an intimate living room like feel
  • lighting design which shifts and shimmers like stain glassed windows of a cathedral.

Neil Young
Boston, MA - April 20, 2011
Photo by Steve Babineau/Sports Action Photography

“When I sing about love and war,
I don’t really know what I’m saying
I’ve been in love and I’ve seen a lot of war
Seen a lot of people praying.
They pray to Allah and they pray to the Lord
And mostly they pray about love and war."

And -- of course -- the songs themselves.

Simply put, songs about love and songs about war. 17 songs, 7 new or unreleased or rare and 10 classics. Instruments performed on included 2 acoustic guitars (standard Martin and a modified pickup), harmonica, 3 keyboards (upright, grand, and pump organ) and 2 electrics (Gretsch White Falcon and Ol Black). To witness how easily each musical instrument is transitioned in the setlist is remarkable.

Some have complained about the brevity of the 90 minute set. For anyone else who might try and cover this much material using this many instruments they most likely would stretch it out to 2 hours with tuning and banter, etc. During these shows, there was zero wasted moments from the time the lights went down and until they came back up.

This was watching a master craftsman at his peak. In command of his material, tools, and audience.

Neil Young
Boston, MA - April 20, 2011
Photo by Steve Babineau/Sports Action Photography

Neil only spoke once each night between songs -- just before "Leia". Otherwise, the songs did all the talking. As Mr Henry described so beautifully in his Boston review:
The set structure is in five groups, each one with three songs that tell a story separately and together, along with a bridge song connecting and reinforcing the segments and an encore that combines them all together in a final farewell and hope-to-see-you-soon moment of sorrow and joy.

Out of the Blue, Tell Me Why and Helpless deal with the great sadness and mystery of life. Trying to make sense of what can often seem senseless. Keeping your candle burning bright even when it would be easier to just give up.

You Never Call, Peaceful Valley Boulevard and Love and War are like siblings to the first three songs, visiting the same thoughts and feelings after many years of the beauty and wonder of living in this world.

Down By the River, Hitchhiker and Ohio brought everyone back home, with Neil exploring the twists and turns of his music and art.

Sign of Love is the bridge portion, where Neil takes a rest and a deep breath to think about all of the best things in life. It sounds old and new at the same time, with echoes of Cinnamon Girl all grown up.

Neil's chamber music for the 21st century

For many, last year's Twisted Road tour was an exceptional experience. We saw folks writing in review comments after the concerts that they were "amazing", "epic", "brilliant", "primal", and "unforgettable".

Some longtime fans even went as far to say that the concerts were "one of the truly great shows that I have seen, definitely one of the best from Neil Young and maybe, just possibly the best one yet."

Some were even left literally "in tears" by the experience.


A comment by Kimball on the concerts summed it up this way:
I have no doubt that we're witnessing a tour that will stand up completely in 3 or 4 decades time.

The source of the 2010-11 tour's sadness was rooted in Neil's loss of his long time associate LA Johnson (1947-2010). The tour's 2nd leg conclusion was bracketed by the loss of long time musical friend Ben Keith. 2010 was a very bad year for Neil and those surrounding him.

Neil seemed to be bearing a very heavy load and he dealt with his grief by paying tribute to L.A. in the new song "You Never Call" (with a mention of his son Ben) as heartbreaking -- yet humorous -- a song he has written in years.

"You Never Call" really encapsulates the mood and tone of the concerts. The ghost of L.A. fills the room and seems to hover over the stage. One can only imagine how hard it must be to sing a song about a dear friend -- who you have known and worked with nearly your entire professional life -- suddenly dies taking your son to a hockey game.

"And I know Ben is with you
'Cause you take him everywhere
He brain-to-brained me
He told me you are still there."

The grief and despair is palpable in the concert's air with its subdued delivery of song selections' lyrics of death, dying, killing, drugs, unfaithfulness, heartbreak and loss.

In our review of the 2010 tour legs -- Expecting to See Neil Young (or Man Without A Net) -- we evoked an image of "Man On A Wire", a documentary film of a trapeze artist who walks a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, in New York City in 1974. And somehow that image reminded us of Neil Young up there.

Up on the stage. Alone. Without a net. Trying to stay balanced between the two twin towers. One side acoustic. The other electric. Sometimes leaning left, sometimes to the right. A tension of whether he might slip. And fall.

Which way to go?

It was a nearly perfect balancing act between love and war. Electric and acoustic. Hey Hey My My. My My Hey Hey. Into the blue. Out of the black.

A comment by setlistthief :
The trilogy of “You Never Call,” “Peaceful Valley,” and “Love and War” is among the most powerful imagery and singing about loss and death I’ve ever heard from Neil. And unlike TTN, this imagery is fueled by cold stark reality, not tequila and dope.

Neil’s reached an age where the finality of death is informing his work in ways it never has before. Indeed, though he’s been surrounded by death and loss his whole life, it is somehow different now. To watch and hear a man struggling with that so eloquently is extraordinary. A privilege.

And for those of us who aren’t far behind, it will help us navigate that Twisted Road.

So while the Twisted Road Tour may not compare with TTN or TFA or Greendale tours in terms of shattering audience expectations, it has certainly caught many off guard as summed up on the official concert t-shirt "I said solo...they said acoustic".

"I said solo...they said acoustic" T-Shirt
Photo by Simpson!

So here's just one of the many reactions to the tour from Kimball:
It's like this, he's workin' like a mad man to get to the place where the music can come through him, to us. Simple as that, and if you don't see that when you go to the shows on this leg of the Le Noise tour, I think you're missing the keystone that makes the whole presentation glow, quiver, tremble, flash and erupt.

Neil Young
Boston, MA - April 20, 2011
Photo by Steve Babineau/Sports Action Photography

Before we wrap up, we have a final thought on these static setlists that some find not worth the bother catching a second time around. Not to be too over dramatic, but would you go back the Louvre again and see Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" again? Or see yet another version of Shakespeare's play "Hamlet"? Or watch Picasso paint "Guernica" day after day?

But maybe sometimes things just don't sink in the first time around...

Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, NY, April 24 & 25, 2011
Photo by Brian Harkin

As a bit of an aside, one of the little highlights is watching Neil have conversations with "Woody", the wooden Indian stage prop bathed in golden light, each night. It's pretty funny and one can only imagine what Neil is saying... and what Woody is saying back...

Neil Young - Massey Hall - May 11, 2011
Photo by Ed B.

Lastly, as we mentioned up top, the best was still yet to come on the second night in Baltimore. Following "Cortez", Neil goes straight into "Cinnamon Girl". At this point, we're completely lost in the zone -- totally enveloped in the sonics where every fiber in your being is locked into the music and you're oblivious to the world around you.

At about the one-third point of "Cinnamon Girl", when Neil sings "Your baby loves to dance, dance, dance - yeah, yeah, yeah", the entire crowd leaps to their feet in unison. Just as this happened, Neil came to the edge of the stage directly in front of us. As if on telepathic cue, we flashed Neil the peace sign 3 times on the "yeah, yeah, yeah" chorus. Our peace signs were literally inches from Ol Black's pickups.

He looked down at us -- giving us a somewhat bemused grin with a little twinkle and nod -- and then strolled off to the stage wings while whamming away on Ol Black to bring the folks in the balconies to their feet.

Now that was a very cool mental vignette snapshot which is firmly etched into our little memory banks forever in time...

"Who'll be the one to lead this world?
Who'll be the beacon in the night?
Who'll be the one to lead the nations?
And protect gods creations?"

Neil Young
Massey Hall - May 11, 2011

Photo by Greg Abramowitz

walk with us down that twisted road...

thrasher & thrashette

ps - and thanks to opener Bert Jansch for often putting up with a lot of disrespect, because we believe in you too.

Great to see everyone on the road... Dee & Tim "Makes You Think About Livin'", Mark "Powderfinger" & Tish, Karen "L&A", Keith "Spin the Black Circle", Sara, Dennis from France, Roel & Roos from Netherlands, Bill "Tired Eyes", Frankie Z., Rick @ Orpheus, Brian "Keys Left Hangin'", Kevin "Union Man", Ed T., Bruce A., Hal P., Stacy B., Carla, Doug from Warsaw, and everyone else along the road!

For more, see Expecting to See Neil Young (or Man Without A Net) and Does The Twisted Road Tour Compare With TTN or TFA Tours?.

Also, see more Neil Young's "Twisted Road" 2010 Concert Tour Reviews and 2011 Solo Neil Young Spring U.S. Tour leg reviews.

Also, A Look Back Down Neil Young's Very Twisted Road.


At 5/15/2011 12:36:00 PM, Anonymous Terri Haram said...

I couldn't agree with you more Thrasher. I saw the Twisted Road concert 11 times. It started for me in Atlanta, then Spartenburg, Portland, Seattle, Calgary, Biloxi, Mobile, Durham, Richmond, Providence and finally Philly. It was a perfect show and obviously I couldn't get enough of it. Much has been said but it was my personal experiences with Neil and his entourage that made it even more special. I met him in Calgary, just my sister and I where he signed my "peace n dove" guitar strap and my Lincvolt tee shirt. I thought that would be the highlight of it all but then came Biloxi where I got to view lincvolt before the disastrous fire. Neil shook my as well as my brother and sister's hands. He signed more paraphernalia. But it was in Durham, where I now reside, that I witnessed Neil's continued graciousness. I was the only person standing outside his bus when he came out after sound check and he signed my Martin guitar. It was perfect. My sister and another bystander finally showed. The concert was spectacular, Neil adding all these little riffs I'd never heard before. After the show a good friend of mine with CP was allowed on the bus to meet Ben. It made his life. Neil hung out after the show, continued to sign autographs and shake hands. He was unbelievable!
I'm headed to California to see the Springfield June 1st and I've already made my flight arrangements for the bridge school. It’s all about this guy’s music and his message that I just can’t seem to get enough of.

At 5/15/2011 01:32:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Awesome review Thrasher. Neil just keeps doing what he does, which is, make incredible music that matters.

We are so lucky that he's among us.


At 5/15/2011 02:17:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

BTW, nice to see the photos by Steve Babineau, a longtime Boston-area photog who has done a lot of work for the Boston Bruins.

I still have the autographed Neil posters he did to benefit the Bridge School about 20 years ago!

At 5/15/2011 04:25:00 PM, Blogger Greg McGarvey said...


At 5/15/2011 05:05:00 PM, Anonymous tj said...

I'd recognize that pic anywhere! Got one from Fresno, back on the Pinks hybrid tour.
Glad y'all had a good time! - tj

At 5/15/2011 06:05:00 PM, Blogger karen said...

great to see you & thrashette, too, t ! x karen

At 5/16/2011 07:59:00 AM, Blogger SONY said...

I would dare say that most things are not as good or as bad as the reviewers say. Sometimes too much emotion, sometimes not enough of an eduacation.

The TR show I saw was excellent. The earth and the auditorium shook,and so did I.Neil Young delivers the goods. The release of LeNoise via a free 39 minute video film through youtube, genius. The b/w videos live of the recording sessions, unmatched as to artistic expression and delivery. Neil has great ideas of what to do with his work. Always inventing a new scene.

Next up, a treasure of past moments of great performances intertwined with viedo footage of it being done, even when it's video of another show. It's like real world animation without it being a cartoon.

Thanks Neil. There's no one else in your league.

At 5/16/2011 09:56:00 AM, Anonymous thezumaband said...

I saw the earlier version of the show twice, and this one once. The shear spookiness of it gives me chills. He is in a very heavy, profound place, but a place that he has been channeling all his life. It just seems to gain added uregency with every passing year.

He has always been extremely deliberate in the relationship of presentation and content in how he structures his work, whether as tracks on an album or in the stage shows.He knows theater, he knows pacing, he knows his audience, which, in his case means he won't pander, but he also won't ignore. As Lincoln said, "“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”.

Walk with me, indeed. It is a scary place to be alone.

At 5/16/2011 06:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...who can tell you

you're just pissin' in the wind..."

At 5/16/2011 06:33:00 PM, Blogger TOM said...

...who can tell you you're just pissin' in the wind..."

At 5/16/2011 06:35:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

@Terri - wonderful. Thanks for sharing. So glad you have such special memories.

@Rusted - Thanks. yes, Babs has some great shots over the years.

@ Greg M - definitely a contender for Comment of the Moment!

@Karen - us too. Is it true that the Toronto crowd was rowdier than the Sat. Philly crowd?!

@SONY - Neil is definitely in a league of his own, for sure.

@zuma - yes, it's an angry world indeed.

At 5/17/2011 09:47:00 AM, Anonymous Mtoher Nature on the Run said...

Slim pick'ns, Thrasher!

What is up with the "pissin in the wind" comments?

"It's only real in the way
that I feel from day to day."

At 5/17/2011 09:55:00 AM, Anonymous Mother Nature on the Run said...

I was just thinking about "Sign of Love" the other day.

Sometimes I hear he's talking about his wife, Pegi, and other times I distinctly hear him singing to all the young girls whom he watched dance to his music over the course of his life time:

"...while the music played,
I watched you dance,

Sign of love
It was a sign of love..."

At 5/18/2011 12:05:00 AM, Blogger ShittyHorse said...

Neil's changed his website...have you guys seen this? Also a somewhat cryptic message from Neil-
May 17, 2011
2012 will be the year that record companies release High Resolution Audio. This is huge for our industry. Since the advent of the CD, listeners have been deprived of the full experience of listening. With the introduction of MP3s via online music services, listeners were further deprived.
The spirituality and soul of music is truly found when the sound engulfs you and that is just what 2012 will bring. It is a physical thing, a relief that you feel when you finally hear music the way artists and producers did when they created it in the studio. The sound engulfs you and your senses open up allowing you to truly feel the deep emotion in the music of some of our finest artists. From Frank Sinatra to the Black Keys, the feeling is there. This is what recording companies were born to give you and in 2012 they will deliver.
-- Neil Young

At 5/18/2011 03:43:00 AM, Blogger Harm said...

Excellent observations Thrasher! I agree with you that this tour is indeed performance art, fine-tuning it to perfection for the filming at Massey Hall. I heard an audience recording of the very first Twisted Road show, which was still rather rough compared to the April 30th show of this year.

The only thing that struck me was some very disrespectful audience members who cannot refrain from heckling. First during the song 'You Never Call', when Neil sings 'the Red Wings are coming to town', there's people booing, cause they probably support a different team. That alone would qualify someone as a complete and utter idiot, because you are totally missing the point of the song.

Then there is the Leia introduction, with some idiot talking back at Neil 'tell me Neil' and stuff like 'yeah, I know what that's like'. And off course the 'ah, a quiet moment, time to scream NEIL! or WOOHOO!'. I also like it when they only recognise a song after he's sung the first few lyrics and then yell out, because it's a 'favourite' of theirs.

If it is that bad during Neil's set, I cannot even imagine what it must have been like during Bert's.

At 5/18/2011 04:42:00 AM, Blogger BecauseSoundMatters said...

Thanks SH! A while ago there were some rumors Neil was working on some kind of new "audio system". This was one or two years ago. It has been discussed over here too. Since then we didn't hear much from it I thought he might have skipped it. So, what will it be?

Neil Young vinyl is the finest vinyl you can get!
Because he is working with an excellent team to make it happen the way it should sound.

FLAC files do work but take some space on you computer, which is not really a problem anymore, and you need some good cables.

Anyway, this new thing should be digital? Or not?

I just decided not to buy any digital audio anymore because I can not listen to it anymore. It sounds like ....! But there still is some problem with getting vinyl on the market at the same time as the digital version. I think Neil is releasing A Treasure on vinyl before the CD. It's the first time he is doing this. Hope he doesn't f*** up this time because vinyl is allways late. Grey Riders.

At 5/18/2011 09:11:00 AM, Blogger MARIAN M. said...


As always, your summary was just about perfect. It was definitely worth waiting for!

Thanks to you and everyone that shared about this incredible experience!

Although I think Neil described it best in his new letter: "..The sound engulfs you and your senses open up allowing you to truly feel the deep emotion in the music...."

That is what it truly felt like being at Lincoln Center. It didn't feel at all like being in a theater. It REALLY felt like we were in a SMALL room together.

The music was glorious!!!!!

I'm also thankful that Mr. Demme was there at Massey Hall to be able to capture the greatness for us to have for generations to come!!!!

And now we have "A Treasure" to look forward to in less than a month!!!!

Live music IS better!!!

Marian M.

At 5/18/2011 09:18:00 AM, Blogger Maury Souza said...

Posted on Neil Young's site yesterday:

May 17, 2011
2012 will be the year that record companies release High Resolution Audio. This is huge for our industry. Since the advent of the CD, listeners have been deprived of the full experience of listening. With the introduction of MP3s via online music services, listeners were further deprived.
The spirituality and soul of music is truly found when the sound engulfs you and that is just what 2012 will bring. It is a physical thing, a relief that you feel when you finally hear music the way artists and producers did when they created it in the studio. The sound engulfs you and your senses open up allowing you to truly feel the deep emotion in the music of some of our finest artists. From Frank Sinatra to the Black Keys, the feeling is there. This is what recording companies were born to give you and in 2012 they will deliver.
-- Neil Young

At 5/18/2011 09:19:00 AM, Anonymous Mother Nature on the Run said...

Hiya Marian!

"Engulf" is a perfect word to describe the impact Neil's music has on Thrasher's regular visitors like you, SH, BSM, and I. It's possible we're all related through genetics due to this propensity we have for appreciating Neil's LIVE sound.

Not everyone "hears" it, ya know? For those of us "trained" on stereo hi-fidelity, it has been a challenge to listen for that high quality "you are there" sound.

At 5/18/2011 01:48:00 PM, Blogger BecauseSoundMatters said...


Amber Jean at Rolling Stone dot com:

192/24 High Resolution Country Rock!

; )

At 5/18/2011 01:55:00 PM, Blogger Tweck9 said...

Great breakdown of the set list, Thrash. It's good to consider the importance of the arrangement of the set. Not merely as a bunch of unconnected songs, but a coherent dialog representing different states of real experience.

It's also a study in contrasts, a theme that's apparent throughout the Le Noise material. So expounding on that further in the live experience fits contextually with the album.


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