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November 20, 2007

Neil Young mixes old and new in solo acoustic set

I waited a long time to see Neil Young. I listened to all his albums, as well as hard-to-find rarities—everything from bootlegs to studio albums. I imagined what he was like in the early days. Even with all that buildup, though, his concert on November 13 at the Chicago Theatre did not disappoint. He played classic hits along with unreleased treasures. My only complaint was that it had to end after two hours.

Sometimes when you try to reach out and touch one of your musical heroes, the person doesn’t live up to your image of him. After years on the road, many rock legends are mere shadows of their former selves. Not Neil. He has managed to grow and change without losing what is intrinsically his. It was one day after his 62nd birthday, but he played with the same fire that allowed him to conquer the 1970s.

Young played guitar, guitjo, piano, and harmonica during an hour-plus solo acoustic set, leading off with “From Hank to Hendrix,” from his 1992 album Harvest Moon. He also played a stunning version of “Ambulance Blues” off his 1974 release On the Beach. Classics like “Cowgirl in the Sand” and "Heart of Gold” rounded out the acoustic set. What made Young’s solo set so unique were the tunes from his immense unreleased vault, particularly “No One Seems to Know,” “Sad Movies,” and “Love Art Blues” from Homegrown, the still-unreleased sequel to Harvest.

For me, the highlight was seeing Young move to the piano and put down his harmonica to play the melancholy “Journey Through The Past” from Time Fades Away (1973). In the middle of the acoustic set, someone in the audience requested “Motion Pictures.” Before playing “Harvest,” Young told the audience that the song was too sad and that he would Google the lyrics after the performance. He paused before saying, “Well, I suppose I did write it.”

Young’s solo set also demonstrated the singer’s ability to convey a sense of intimacy. Aside from a few exclamations of “Happy Birthday Neil” and “I love you,” the audience remained quiet. The crowd was put into a musical trance as Young moved his feet back and forth to the beat, unafraid of displaying raw emotion.

Following a brief intermission, Young returned to the stage for an electric set with Ben Keith on dobro, Rick Rosas on bass, and Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina. They led off with “The Loner” from Young’s 1968 eponymous debut. Young kicked off the set with backbreaking guitar solos—backbreaking because of the guitarist’s idiosyncratic, hunched-over style. “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Winterlong” were the two standout tracks from Young’s first days with Crazy Horse. Before each song, a stagehand would place a sign with the name of the song Young was about to play on an easel onstage. During the acoustic set, the same easel had a sign that read simply “N.”

The quartet ripped through several songs from Chrome Dreams II. “Spirit Road” was a stunning appetizer to what would follow it. The last song of the electric set was “No Hidden Path,” also off Chrome Dreams II. Young went into extended solos during the song, playing a 20-minute, breathtaking closer to the show. I was sweating during the song and I wasn’t even onstage.

And then there was the encore. The band returned to the stage and immediately jumped into “Cinnamon Girl.” The song was played wonderfully, considering that they had just finished “No Hidden Path.” For the next song Young took a seat at the piano and jumped into a sing-along version of “Tonight’s The Night.”

“Tonight’s the Night” appeared to be the last song, but it wasn’t. A man dressed like Ali Baba went onstage and began hitting an enormous gong. The band returned and plunged into an instrumental in which Young played a solo while the strange man continued to hit the gong. When the song was over, the audience was left confused, yet musically satiated.

I went to the concert with two of my best friends, and we all left the Chicago Theatre in total euphoria. However, I kept thinking about one thing: There are so few artists like Neil Young left today that I felt unbelievably lucky to have been exposed to his music at such a young age. While I have to thank Neil for the music, I also need to thank the person who first played Decade, Harvest, and Freedom for me when I was just a toddler. So I’ll do it now. Thanks, Dad.