Neil Young almost did it all in New York. He showed up with the Stray Gators — the near-perfect backup band from Harvest — and a bunch of fine new songs. More importantly, he left behind the case of nerves that marred several concerts during his last tour. This time out his attitude was relaxed and engaging, one that allowed him to ignore both the indifference of the mostly trade audience that filled the orchestra and the belligerently fruitcake fans that stood standing and screaming in all of the balconies.
Young was least effective in his opening solo spot, where the occasional shrillness and flatness of his voice grated against the excessively simple acoustic guitar background. The balance between voice and background found its natural meeting ground only with the addition of the band, and as he sat playing acoustic guitar, with Kenny Buttrey playing only the sketchiest of drum parts for “Out on the Weekend,” Young began to sound better and better. After “Heart Of Gold,” he switched to his Lonnie Mack-style electric and revved up the volume.
For the rest of the concert we were alternately treated and subjected to some beautifully intense singing, dazzling new songs and interminably mediocre jamming. Halfway through the performance it struck me that Neil’s talents are, in descending order, as a vocalist, arranger, melodist, lyricist, rhythm guitarist and lead guitarist. His often sentimental words are an almost always sufficient vehicle for his musical ideas. That combination of simple lyrics and intense delivery was especially evident on his best new song, “Don’t Be Denied,” an autobiographical piece that left him screaming about the paranoia that comes from “… seeing the world through a businessman’s eyes.”
Another told of the joy of watching a woman expecting their child. Both, however, were marred by those seemingly unnecessary guitar solos, which often clashed with Ben Keith’s high-pitched pedal guitar noodlings and meanderings.
Young hit his peak with the most familiar songs, including an explosive rendition of “Cinnamon Girl,” an improved “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and a solid “Southern Man.” For me, everything was overshadowed by one song — “Alabama.” I think it has the best chorus he has written and in performance, it builds with a majestic sway characteristic of the Rolling Stones at their best.
Young was not especially well received, all things considered. The performance was too short and he barely won an encore. Just the same, the morning after, I found myself admiring him as much as a person as a musician. In “Don’t Be Denied,” he offers one of the few attacks on the star system that a rock musician has made creditable. And he makes it so because his performance and style seem free of any taint of cynicism. He knows everything the pop world has to offer and intends to enjoy himself in spite of it.
As for the people who at one time or another think they are using him — whether in his professional or personal life — he doesn’t even seem to mind, because he knows that while he isn’t going to change them, they haven’t changed him either.