When I last checked in with Neil Young, he was fronting Crazy Horse in a hockey stadium, collectively stumbling upon glory through a thick layer of noise and electric guitar.
The shambling was more literal last night for his solo show at Chicago Theater, the first of two nights at the venue. Shuttling around the stage between an array of guitars, a grand piano (hand painted by his daughter), an upright piano (which he bought three times over since first renting it in 1969) and a majestic pump organ which blurted out the bad-ass "Mr. Soul" riff under his capable touch, the iconic performer moved about with the strange pace and awkward gait of a man consumed with his art.
While that Crazy Horse gig revealed the side of the artist that continually moves forward, creating show-stopping moments out of the freshies from Psychedelic Pill, on Monday, his older songs were the towering giants. The crowd erupted in approval at the first hints of not only Golden Era tunes like "Old Man", "Heart Of Gold", and "Southern Man", but also the mid-period melancholy of "Harvest Moon" and "From Hank To Hendrix".
With so many facets to his creative life, it is impossible to say you are ever getting the "whole" Neil, but amongst so much of his most moving material on this night, it was hard not to acknowledge his legacy.
This being Neil, he's also going to mix it up a bit. At this show, that came in the form of folk songs by the songwriters that influenced him in his formative years. Tim Hardin's "Reason To Believe" and Phil Ochs "Changes" are songs that mean to Neil what his own material has come to mean to us -- transformative, evocative, providing access to places within ourselves unavailable without music.
"These songs are in all my other songs," he said during one of his period strolls around the stage. "Sometimes I get lost and play the other song when I'm playing one of my own."
Young pushed all his instruments to the limit, and without having to compete sonically with a band, every strum of the guitar, every plunk of the keyboard, and every subtle turn of his one-of-a-kind voice was crystal clear -- making each word of "Cortez The Killer" more poignant, "Ohio" more angry, "Someday" more hopeful, and "After the Gold Rush" more cosmic.
The sound filled every inch of the room, and with nowhere else to go spilled over into our hearts.
He worked the room between songs in a monologue as beautifully deranged as his wandering amongst his gear ("this show is sponsored by water… and glass," he announced after a swig). As usual, a few excited audience members hoped to turn these quips into a conversation, no doubt encouraged by the intimacy of the gig.
Just before the second set, he graced us with a few verses of a beatnik-style poem about Chicago, which he promised to finish the following night.
Even the hardcore screamers could only sit and listen in awe.
It was a moment that served to punctuate just why we had gathered. -- to see just to see one man, without filter… surrendering ourselves to a lifetime of his vision.
A truly moving musical experience.
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From Hank to Hendrix
On The Way Home
Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Love In Mind (grand piano)
Mellow My Mind (banjo… really a guitar, Neil can't play banjo)
Reason To Believe (piano)
Changes (Phil Ochs)
Beatnik Poem (to be continued tomorrow night)
A Man Needs a Maid (synth + grand piano)
Mr. Soul (organ)
If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot)
After the Gold Rush (piano)
Heart Of Gold