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.
One would not have thought an acoustic version of “Southern Man” could have approached the ferocity of the familiar electric version: turns out that was incorrect. “Mr. Soul,” performed on a pump organ and peppered with demonic harmonica runs, was rendered newly menacing (and still deeply weird). A great song, we were reminded again and again over the course of more than two hours, can withstand or even benefit from a new translation.
There were a number of covers. In the first three instances – Tim Hardin's “Reason to Believe,” Phil Ochs's “Changes,” and fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot's “If You Could Read My Mind” – Young went out of his way to praise the songwriter's craft and the song's beauty. The last of these was a real revelation: stripped of the hit single's syrupy strings and wrested from Lightfoot's nasal delivery, it felt new. The last of the night's covers was Dylan's “Blowin' in the Wind,” though it was a rather desultory effort.
Young has lost a couple of notes at the top of his range – but just a couple. And what little he's lost in power, he's made up for with authority and wisdom. To watch him at this point in his career, looking back over what he's made and thinking about what will last, it feels like an incredible privilege.
1. From Hank to Hendrix
2. On the Way Home
3. Only Love Can Break Your Heart
4. Love in Mind
6. Mellow My Mind
7. Reason to Believe (Tim Hardin)
9. Changes (Phil Ochs)
11. Old Man
12. Goin' Back
13. A Man Needs a Maid
15. Southern Man
16. Mr. Soul
17. If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot)
18. After the Gold Rush
19. Heart of Gold