Neil Young Solo Show – Carnegie Hall (NYC – Jan 7, 2014)

You've never heard my favorite Neil Young anecdote.

A decade or more ago, my wife was in an elevator at Saks Fifth Avenue when two men stepped in – and, somewhat implausibly, one of them was Neil Young. Now, she and I frequently disagree about music, but in the Venn Diagram of our tastes, "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" sits squarely in the middle of the intersection. So, when he turned toward her and asked, "do you have any idea where I could get a beret?," she didn't confuse him with Johnny Hallyday. Rather, she looked up at the posted guide, and coolly replied "I'd guess the sixth floor, for Men's Accessories and Furnishings – but are you sure that's a good idea?" The rock icon just looked at her. Then they all rode to the sixth floor in silence, where he got out.

Is there anyone more maddening than Neil Young? I mean, really. A beret? Or, have you heard his latest album, 2012's well-reviewed "Psychedelic Pill?" It opens with "Drifting Back," a 27 minute song that includes the lyrics "I used to dig Picasso / I used to dig Picasso / Hey now now, hey now now / I used to dig Picasso." Oh, Neil. Are you so sure those lyrics are a good idea?

And yet. I have a hard time thinking of any singer-songwriter for whom I have more respect and appreciation than Neil Young. The words for "Sugar Mountain" are pretty silly too, and yet they can still make me teary with appreciation. We wouldn't have Built to Spill, or Pearl Jam, or Wilco, or My Morning Jacket, or some alarming percentage of my entire iTunes library, without him. So when Young came to New York this week for a four night solo run at Carnegie Hall, it was off to StubHub for some pricey balcony tickets.

* * *

As befits a solo show, the stage was pretty spare: a chair downstage center surrounded by about a dozen guitars; an upright honky-tonk piano off to stage right, a concert grand piano down left, and a pump organ on a raised platform, upstage center. Young came out from a side door, and the audience began to applaud earnestly, loudly, respectfully.

Huh. Well, it was complicated. This is a guy who has spent his life around crunching guitars, as have we all. But then, there we were in a high temple of music, with reports of a purely acoustic set list that would date to his golden, early-1970s period. And, the fact is, he IS 68 years old. Was this a rock concert, or a trip to a museum?

Yes.

In fact, Neil Young has made a career of not worrying too much about what we think, beret or otherwise. His opening song, about an aging relationship that might not make it, contains the observation "The same thing that makes you live / Can kill you in the end." Think about most of the musicians you remember from the 1960s and 1970s: dead from drugs, or dead from the monotony of playing the same sound over and over again. There are certainly other musicians who are known for having reinvented themselves (e.g., David Bowie, Madonna, even Bob Dylan or U2), changing their sound to fit the times. But nobody ever uses the "R-word" with Neil Young, whether he is doing some shoegazey thing with Daniel Lanois ("Le Noise"), grunge ("Mirror Ball"), or veering back to pretty acoustic guitar melodies. He's doing this for himself, at least as much as this note is for you.

With each song, he would pick up a guitar and tell a story about it: "this one was given to me by Steven Stills. As you can see, it has been banged up a bit." And then he would launch into a song like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," with a wavering tenor that has become more natural with age. Placed together as a retrospective, these are stories of sadness and ambivalence which reflect his long strange trip, and our own. "What am I doing here?," he sings repeatedly in "Love In Mind." And you may ask yourself; how did we all get so old? After ten songs, three of which were from 1972's "Harvest," the lights came up, and he walked off stage for an intermission.

The second half of the show was a bit darker, and it contained more of the evening's surprises. Young started with the underrated "Goin' Back," which reminds us that "there's nowhere to stay" even if we could go home again. He shifted to "A Man Needs A Maid," a weird song made even weirder by the introduction of a very artificial-sounding synthesizer, placed atop the grand piano in lieu of the original orchestra. Then a pair of protest songs, reminding us how the world has changed, and how it hasn't. (I looked around at the heads nodding along during "Southern Man," and I didn't see a single African-American in the audience. Not a one.)

A pair of songs about addiction -- a cover of "Needle of Death," by the late Scottish folksinger Bert Jansch, followed by Young's own "The Needle and the Damage Done" – also took on new meaning with age. I've often wondered what it would be like to 'have to' sing such personal songs over and over again. Perhaps the answer is that songs change their meaning: become less personal, grief transmuted into sadness, and then history, and then wisdom.

My favorite was probably the dirge-like "Mr. Soul," which I didn't see coming: a blues harmonica intro that sent shivers down my back, and then the groaning of the pump organ. Compare this to 21-year-old Neil in buckskin fringe on the Hollywood Palace tv show – or to ourselves, when we first heard this music: same song, same singer, worlds apart.

--------------------------------------

Set List (Neil Young: Solo Show at Carnegie Hall, 7 Jan 2014):

  • From Hank to Hendrix [1]
  • On The Way Home [2]
  • Only Love Can Break Your Heart [3]
  • Love In Mind [4]
  • Mellow My Mind [5]
  • Are You Ready For The Country [6]
  • Someday [7]
  • Changes (Phil Ochs cover)
  • Harvest [6]
  • Old Man[6]
  • ---------- {intermission} ----------
  • Goin' Back [8]
  • A Man Needs A Maid [6]
  • Ohio [9]
  • Southern Man [3]
  • Mr. Soul [10]
  • Needle Of Death (Bert Jansch cover)
  • The Needle and the Damage Done [6]
  • Harvest Moon [1]
  • Flying On The Ground (Is Wrong) [11]
  • After The Goldrush [3]
  • ---------- {encore} ----------
  • Heart Of Gold [6]
  • Comes A Time [8]
  • Long May You Run [12]

[1] From "Harvest Moon," 1992
[2] From "Last Time Around" (Buffalo Springfield), 1968
[3] From "After The Gold Rush," 1970
[4] From "Time Fades Away," 1973 (released on vinyl only)
[5] From "Tonight's The Night," 1975
[6] From "Harvest," 1972
[7] From "Freedom," 1989
[8] From "Comes A Time," 1978
[9] From "Decade," 1977
[10] From "Buffalo Springfield Again" (Buffalo Springfield), 1967
[11] From "Buffalo Springfield" (Buffalo Springfield), 1966
[12] From "Long May You Run" (The Stills-Young Band), 1976

Views: 2381

Tags: Carnegie Hall, Neil Young, concert, folk, grunge

Comment by Peter Wrench on January 14, 2014 at 4:20am

Thanks for a nice, thoughtful piece, John. You have to put up with a fair amount of crap as a fan of Neil, but it's definitely worth it... And I love the beret story.

Comment by Art Reilly. on January 14, 2014 at 6:21am

Gee, I wish I was there. Great set lists!

Comment by Rudyjeep on January 14, 2014 at 7:53am

Very Nice - and funny - review of the show.  Thanks for posting. 

Comment by Kyla Fairchild on January 14, 2014 at 8:21am

I enjoyed reading this John.  You made me wish I'd been there.  Thanks for posting.

Comment by Keith Bates on January 14, 2014 at 9:35am

Nice write up/review. The beret story sums up the different nature of Neil Young and part of his offbeat charm.

Comment by Charlie Bermant on January 14, 2014 at 9:53am

It could have been his French counterpart, Neil Jeune. 

Comment by L A Johnson on January 14, 2014 at 2:04pm
Neil's his own man and we've had to buy some music that sits on the shelf and looks at me and says, are you sure? The Pill was for me a dreadful record, I'm probably alone in that view I found the lyrics and soloing self indulgent. But the recent set lists are awesome, I've been evicted from the Neil Young Thrasher web site for daring to question the validity of his recent releases.
Comment by patrick charles on January 14, 2014 at 3:44pm

l've seen Neil only 5 times in my 37 yrs being an adult and oh, to hear 'goin'back' live. That's a rare gem l hear no one comment about how good it is. What a beautiful song on a brilliant album.

Comment by Sherry Tinerella on January 16, 2014 at 8:41am

Thank you for sharing this experience.  I like how you illustrated Neil as the center of a Venn diagram between you and your wife's musical tastes.  My husband and I always meet at the center with pretty much any Neil music.  Sounds like a lovely evening.  I had seen Neil in a solo show in Chicago probably in the late 80's (as well as 2 other times with bands).  That show was the best. 

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.