March 30, 2014
Neil Young conducted a master class on (North) American songwriting last night in Hollywood's sumptuous Dolby Theatre - you know, the place where they have the Oscars. It was the second of a four-night engagement.
The show was part of the Twisted Road Tour, a series of all-acoustic performances that started with four shows at Carnegie Hall in January. The "acoustic" part may have disappointed some: Young's erratic electric guitar parts on songs like "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Cortez the Killer" were mainstays of many high-school air guitar repertories, and one never tires of those ridiculous one-note solos. But when the lights went down and Young walked on stage, minds were immediately changed.
He opened with 1992's "From Hank to Hendrix," singing "Here I am with this old guitar / Doin' what I do," and other selections spanned from the miraculously bizarre Buffalo Springfield song "Mr. Soul" to Young's contribution to the film Philadelphia
. There was a pronounced bias to the set list: the last two decades went entirely unmentioned, whereas two of his two biggest-selling albums, After the Gold Rush
(1970) and Harvest
(1972), contributed three songs each. Twelve of the show's 17 Young-penned songs dated from the 70s.
But there was a cunning logic behind the set list, as Young sought to demonstrate that great songwriting transcends its original contexts. The mainstream success of Harvest
just about undid the man; presenting a half-dozen songs from his biggest albums as solo acoustic numbers gave Young the opportunity to demonstrate quite vividly that they were both popular and good: even, possibly, popular because good.
To be sure, some of the songwriting on those two records is buried under a layer (or two) of arrangement for arrangement's sake. Case in point: "A Man Needs a Maid." Rather than trying to rescue it, Sunday night Young played it at a baby grand piano, adding cheesy trills and figures like a lounge act; at those moments when, on the album, the bombast of the London Symphony Orchestra had come in to add grandeur to the proceedings, Young reached instead for an electronic keyboard perched atop the piano, which provided a hilarious pompousness all its own.