Neil Young at Chicago Theatre | Live review | photos
Just because Neil Young is a force of nature himself does not mean he’s not subject to similar forces. But if lesser artists get blown whichever way fashion points, and often down paths they’ve followed many times before, the forces that drive Young are much harder to predict, with the artist responding to his elusive, ephemeral muse with equally inspiring and inscrutable results. The man’s got more classic albums to his name than most, and just as many unremarkable ones, but the reason we care is that every once in a while he still releases a great one.
That Young remains as vital as ever was underscored by last year’s solo disc Le Noise, which featured the singer accompanying himself with rumbling walls of weird, reverberating guitars, but Young’s been further emphasizing the point with his current solo tour. Taking a page from the theatricality of fellow eccentric Tom Waits, the atmospherically lit Young stood center stage at the Chicago Theatre surrounded by an array of tantalizing options. There were the pianos. The pump organ. The pair of differently prepared acoustics. And waiting in the wings his souped-up Gretsch White Falcon with the funky output and, of course, his iconic Les Paul, “Old Black.” Throughout the night, Young would wander from instrument to instrument, teasing the crowd with his potential choice. Once or twice Young stood by the life-sized wooden Indian he takes on tour with him and commiserated in pantomime.
Of course, by now Young’s strategy is largely set even if its presentation makes it seem more spontaneous. He placates with crowd with a few familiar standards before apparently leaping off into parts unknown, though of course the singer’s been rigidly drawing from the same small pool of songs for most of this tour. In Friday night’s case, the first of two shows, it meant starting seated and acoustic with renditions of “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue),” “Tell Me Why” and “Helpless,” and with those reliable numbers out of the way the “wandering” began. With mock indecision, Young progressed through a setlist that offered the bulk of Le Noise, from the haunting “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” to the harrowing “Hitchhiker,” juicing the night with nods to the past, whether solid solo-electric versions of “Ohio,” Down by the River” and “Cinnamon Girl” or a noodly “Cortez the Killer” and “After the Gold Rush” on the pump organ.
Even Young’s unreleased selections “Leia” and “You Never Call” have been fixtures of this tour, though as always it was fascinating to watch Young conjure the same primal magic that courses through his records. There’s simply no matching that high warble, that imprecise but perfect approach to the guitar, where even wrong notes can be right, and where a song can just as easily end with a resolving chord as with Young swinging his guitar in front of his amp, pendulum-like, as if exorcising demons in the form of feedback. The setlist may be the same from night to night, his presence may be slightly aloof, but when you’re talking one-of-a-kind there’s really no such thing as run of the mill. Given the mediocre meandering of his many erratic peers, the guy’s consistency as a live performer alone deserves deference if it doesn’t always inspire awe.
Young’s handpicked opener this night was unsung legend Bert Jansch—Scottish folk revivalist from the ’60s known for his work in Pentangle and influence on Led Zep's Jimmy Page—a player who possesses all the virtuoso finesse Young lacks but virtually none of the fame, at least not outside of the guitar nuts and record collectors attracted to his near unparalleled talents. His fingers were a flurry of strange chords chiming across odd tunings as he bridged the blues with British folk in a way that reduced what one presumes was a crowd pretty unfamiliar with his history or work—he’s been active nearly as long as Young —to a respectful silence.