When Neil Young walked onstage for the first of his four-night stand at Carnegie Hall, nobody in the audience had any idea what sort of show he was about to present. His previous theater tour in 2010 was a bizarre (and ultimately unsatisfying) mixture of solo acoustic and solo electric tunes, concentrating on hits and selections from his then-unreleased LP Le Noise. The last time he launched a solo acoustic tour was eleven years ago in Europe, and those crowds heard a complete performance of his rock opera Greendale, which wouldn't hit shelves for another four months. More recently, he played a set at Farm Aid last year that consisted almost entirely of other people's songs. If the man's anything, he's unpredictable.
Thankfully, Neil Young had no such surprises for the capacity crowd at Carnegie Hall. Instead, he treated them to an absolutely jaw-dropping two hour and 20-minute show that focused largely on his golden period of 1966 to 1978. He only deviated from that era for two songs from 1992's Harvest Moon, the 1989 obscurity "Someday" and a pair of covers by Phil Ochs and Bert Jansch. The opening notes of classics "Harvest," "A Man Needs a Maid" and "On the Way Home" sent shockwaves of recognition and joy through the crowd, who then listened to them in near silence. It was, without a doubt, one of the greatest Neil Young shows of the past decade, at least when he wasn't playing with Crazy Horse.
The first time Young played Carnegie Hall was a two-night stand in late 1970, capping off an incredible year where he recorded Deja Vu with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young as well as his solo album After the Gold Rush. "I was pretty jacked up [that night]," he said early on last night. "People started yelling out and doing all kinds of things. I said, 'Listen, I know what I'm doing here. I've been dying to get into this place. I planned it out. I know exactly what I'm going to play and nothing you're going to say is going to change my mind.' Then I was playing this Buffalo Springfield song 'Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing' and somebody yelled out from the audience and I stopped and said, 'Shit, I lost my concentration.' Then I left. There wasn't going to be an intermission, but there was. Tonight I planned on an intermission. I'm much more mellow now."
It would be tough to be less mellow than Neil Young circa 1970, but there were no outbursts last night (though Carnegie Hall's incredible acoustics made every knucklehead's commentary perfectly audible to the entire auditorium). "You guys finished?" he asked calmly after a group of guys refused to stop demanding loudly that he play the extreme rarity "Don't Be Denied." "You paid real money to get in here, so you should be able to listen to each other. I hear a little voice, 'Be nice, be nice.' Thank you, sweetheart."
Much like his stellar 1999 solo acoustic tour, there was a chair in the center of the stage surrounded by about eight acoustic guitars and a banjo. There were also two pianos and a pump organ, and sometimes between songs Young would wander around, pick up a guitar, briefly contemplate using it, and then opt for another. He was also in a chatty mood, sharing stories behind many of the instruments, including the legendary guitar that once belonged to Hank Williams.
But the night was largely devoted to classics from Young's commercial peak in the early Seventies. It's been years since he crammed this many hits into a set, playing over half the songs on Harvest ("Heart of Gold," "Are You Ready for the Country," "Old Man," "The Needle and the Damage Done," "A Man Needs A Maid" and "Harvest"), along with "Ohio," "After the Gold Rush," "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," "Comes a Time," "Long May You Run" and his first performance of "Southern Man" in nearly a decade.
Midway through the second set he broke out Bert Jansch's 1965 classic "Needle of Death." Young has claimed he lifted the chords of "Ambulance Blues" from the tune, and he emphasized the similarities between the two during the intro. He followed it up with the thematically similar "Needle and the Damage Done," showing just how influential this single tune was on his songwriting.
Some of the best moments of the night came when he resurrected material from the Buffalo Springfield catalog. "On the Way Home" was absolutely spellbinding, and he proved why "Flying on the Ground Is Wrong" is one of his most under-appreciated masterpieces when he played it on the upright piano. But the most radically rearranged song of the night was "Mr. Soul," which he played on the pump organ.
Other highlights included a banjo rendition of the Tonight's the Night gem "Mellow My Mind," a rollicking "Are You Ready for the Country?" and a climactic "After the Gold Rush," both on the standup piano. The only real complaint is that he played so many early Seventies classics that he neglected all other eras of his long career. Not a single note of music was played from the past 22 years, nor did he go near anything from 1978 to 1989. The late Sixties and the Seventies were obviously the period when he produced his best work, but there's been a lot of amazing stuff since then, and it would have been nice to hear just a little more of it.
It's incredible to think that in the past five months, Young has played ridiculously loud, feedback-drenched marathon concerts with Crazy Horse all over Europe, reunited with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the Bridge School Benefit and put together this gentle, nostalgic Carnegie Hall show. At age 68, his voice has lost only a bit of its range, and his guitar playing sounds just like it did the first time he played Carnegie Hall.
It's unclear if he's going to perform this show outside of Carnegie Hall and his four "Honor the Treaties" gigs in Canada later this month, but Neil Young fans should make every possible effort to see it while they can. This is the show they've been waiting to see for years and years.
Here is Neil Young's set list:
"From Hank to Hendrix"
"On the Way Home"
"Only Love Can Break Your Heart"
"Love in Mind"
"Mellow My Mind"
"Are You Ready for the Country?"
"Changes" (Phil Ochs)
"A Man Needs a Maid"
"Needle of Death" (Bert Jansch)
"The Needle and the Damage Done"
"Flying on the Ground Is Wrong"
"After the Gold Rush"
"Heart of Gold"
"Comes a Time"
"Long May You Run"