For a 62-year-old rock veteran, Neil Young still has a lot of ideas competing for attention in his brain. So many, in fact, that a Neil Young performance might be acoustic or electric, laid-back country or full-on garage rock. It might be political, conceptual, or just impenetrable.
It could be in a huge hockey arena, or, if you're lucky, you can see him in a small, historic theater on his 2007 Chrome Dreams Continental Tour. In Minneapolis, Neil brought something for everyone to the University of Minnesota's Northrop Auditorium, an elegant 5000-seat concert hall built in 1929.
The show was evenly divided into two sets, the first an intimate solo acoustic performance, with Neil wandering around a whimsical stage set, choosing between guitar, harmonica, banjo, piano and organ, depending on what each song called for. A cigar-store Indian, half-painted canvases, old-fashioned movie lamps and a semi-circle of Neil's favorite guitars gave the stage a cozy feel. His voice still sounds good, and his concentration was unaffected by numerous howls and requests from the audience for their favorite song.
The songs ranged from well-known ("From Hank To Hendrix," "After the Gold Rush," "Love is a Rose"), to lesser-known ("Ambulance Blues," "Mellow my Mind"), and even unreleased ("Sad Movies," "No One Seems to Know," "Love Art Blues"). One of the highlights of the set was an intense rendition of "A Man Needs a Maid," with a distorted, carnivalesque organ replacing the London Symphony Orchestra sections from "Harvest," Young's most well-known album.
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The unreleased songs were most likely unearthed from Neil's extensive archives, the subject of an upcoming 8-CD, 2-DVD collection. For longtime Neil Young fanatics, it was a real treat to hear the more obscure material, especially "Ambulance Blues" and "Bad Fog of Loneliness," but the set ended in the middle of the road with his most famous song, "Heart of Gold," to the delight of casual fans in the audience.
After a brief intermission, Neil returned to the stage with his electric guitar and current touring band: Ben Keith, Rick Rosas and Ralph Molina, the same musicians from his latest release, "Chrome Dreams II." The stage slowly came alive as the band launched into "The Loner," from Neil's 1969 eponymous debut.
The vibe was good, but there was something disjointed about seeing Neil rock out in a seated theater. For the acoustic set, it's a perfect fit, but when a full band plays hard rock, people want to stand up, move their bodies and knock back cold beers. Unfortunately, that just wasn't possible in the confines of this traditional venue.
Neil soldiered on though, wailing and flailing about, oblivious to the forced calm of the audience. Ben Keith and Rick Rosas are competent and dependable sidemen that Neil has worked with for years, but as Young coaxed his signature feedback-laden guitar tone to life in sync with the heavy drumming of Ralph Molina, I found myself missing the complete version of Crazy Horse, Neil's most powerful backing band.
Continuing the schizophrenic nature of the show, Neil mixed brand new garage rockers from "Chrome Dreams II" ("Dirty Old Man," "Spirit Road," "No Hidden Path") with bittersweet, country-tinged ballads ("Bad Fog of Loneliness," "Oh, Lonesome Me") to mixed success. Just as people began to get riled up with the fast songs, the slower ones returned the mood to the more reserved, acoustic feel of the first set.
For the encores though, the volume was cranked, most in the audience rose to their feet, and everything came together for an explosive one-two punch of "Cinnamon Girl" and "Like a Hurricane." If you closed your eyes to block out the gray hair and lines of age, Neil sounded as youthful and passionate as ever and you'd swear you were at the Fillmore East in 1970, or at least the Cow Palace in '78.
Afterwards, like thousands of nights before, Neil waved to the crowd, walked off stage and followed his muse, most likely leading him in some wonderfully unpredictable direction.