When Neil Young launched his last American solo arena tour five years ago, the main set consisted entirely of Greendale, a dense concept record that wouldn't hit stores for another two months. The fans who yelled "Old Man" and "Cortez The Killer" with a mixture of shock and horror received little solace from the measly three song encore of hits. Last night, at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, he kicked off a new American tour with a set packed with more hits than a double bill of the Beach Boys and Creedence Clearwater Revisited.
From the opening notes of 1990's "Love and Only Love" it was clear that Young, clad in a paint splattered sport coat and jeans, was in flawless vocal shape and full of incredible energy, especially considering that he'll be 63 years old in less than a month. The classics started flying, including "Hey Hey, My My," "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" and "Powderfinger." The acoustic segment of "Heart Of Gold," "Old Man," "Helpless" and "The Needle And The Damage Done" could have been taken from a Neil Young block on a soft rock radio station, but he played them with enough passion to make them feel alive again. The hits were balanced out at the end of the night with a three consecutive brand new songs, all of which seemed to be about Young's efforts to build a car that gets 100 miles to the gallon. The night ended with a feedback-heavy cover of "A Day In The Life" that concluded with Young ripping all the strings of his famous black Gibson Les Paul.
The band was the nearly the same one he used on the electric portion of last year's brief theater tour, with studio ace Chad Cromwell swapping in for Crazy Horse's Ralph Molina on drums. Longtime Young sidemen Ben Keith (pedal steel/rhythm guitar), Rick Rosas (bass), Anthony Crawford (piano, guitar) and Neil's wife Peggi (piano, background vocals) have an incredible ability to recreate the sound of any record, whether the songs were originally cut with Crazy Horse or the Harvesters.
The sheer amount of Crazy Horse staples ("Cinnamon Girl," "Cowgirl In The Sand," "Rockin' In The Free World") did make me miss the original players. Rosas is a near flawless bassist, but often the joy of a great Neil Young performance is hearing the group screw something up. "No matter how fuckin' much we practice the song, [bassist] Billy [Talbot] can get so into the groove he'll forget to do the change," Young says of Crazy Horse in his biography Shakey. "Ralph [Molina] can pick it up on the wrong beat and play it backwards — that happens all the time. Never happens with real professional musicians." If the only nitpick was Young's band played too perfectly, however, then it was clearly an amazing show. It was definitely one of the best arena shows I've seen in a long time. Hopefully he'll bring the Horse next time and bring it to an even higher level.
"Love And Only Love"
"Hey Hey, My My"
"Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere"
"Cortez The Killer"
"The Needle and the Damage Done"
"Heart Of Gold"
"Get Back To The Country"
"Just Singing a Song"
"When Worlds Collide"
"Cowgirl In The Sand"
"Rockin' In The Free World"
"A Day In The Life"