Six songs into Neil Young’s seemingly sedate solo set at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium last night, the 64-year-old rocker stunned fans who weren’t expecting to leave with ringing ears. Putting down his acoustic guitar, he strapped on his signature electric Les Paul Old Black and began thrashing away on “Down by the River” like a one-man Crazy Horse. Over the last four decades, Young’s solo theater shows have been decidedly unplugged affairs — but this time around, he clearly felt like once again defying expectations.
Young is midway through recording a new album with producer Daniel Lanois, and this short tour is partially a means to road-test new material. But before Young broke out fresh music, he opened with three crowd-pleasers that rang through the theater, demonstrating how his voice has remained miraculously undiminished by time: “My My, Hey Hey (Into the Blue),” “Tell Me Why” and “Helpless.” Three consecutive new tracks followed, beginning with “You Never Call,” which seems to be about the recent death of his longtime creative partner L.A. Johnson. “You’re in heaven with nothing to do,” Young sang with clear sorrow in his voice. “The ultimate vacation with no back pain.” “Peaceful Valley” is a lament about man’s destruction of the American frontier, from the time the pioneers slaughtered herds of buffalo to the present day, when global warming causes “ancient rivers to boil.” Another new song, “Love and War,” is both an anti-war anthem and an opportunity for Young to reflect on his own anti-violence canon. “Daddy won’t ever come home,” Young repeatedly sang to a child who lost his father. Later, the first few notes of a particularly snarling rendition of “Ohio” sent the audience into a frenzy, and Young’s rage over the Kent State massacre seemed just as fresh today as when he wrote the song exactly 40 years ago.
The only old song of the night that didn’t originate in Young’s golden era of 1969-1978 was “Hitchhiker,” an incredible, unreleased cut from the Harvest Moon era that he’s hopefully considering for the new disc. Over just a few minutes the track tells Young’s entire life story — growing up in Canada, driving his 1948 hearse to California, becoming successful with Buffalo Springfield, quickly becoming disenchanted by fame, buying his isolated ranch, divorcing Carrie Snodgress and finally finding happiness with his wife, Pegi. Along the way he lists all the drugs he’s ingested: hash, Valium, amphetamines, cocaine and (his favorite) grass.
Before playing the new song “Leia” on the piano, Young spoke his only words of the night, briefly explaining the track is a tribute to the newest member of his family. The lyrics, about a family’s delight over a newborn baby, were sweet, but the simple melody was unfortunately repetitive. He moved to the pump organ for a spiritual “After the Goldrush” and to another piano for a moving rendition of “I Believe In You.”
Young has played “Cortez the Killer” countless times both acoustic and electric, but he’s never done it like he did last night. Back on the Les Paul, he created an epic wall of distortion and feedback with his whammy bar while playing the actual chords to the song (a rare sight). The main set ended with a much more traditionally arranged “Cinnamon Girl.” Both of those songs sound exquisite acoustically, and though it’s initially bizarre to watch Young standing alone onstage, rocking furiously like he’s with the rest of Crazy Horse, the effect somehow gels. Maybe next time Young comes around, he’ll finally let Crazy Horse out of the barn. But until then, he and Lanois have some very strong material to sculpt into what could be Young’s best album in years.