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Imagine Neil Young at home on his Northern Californian ranch. Mismatched decorative rugs hang on the walls, a black jacket dangles off a coat rack in the corner. A candle flickers atop an old pipe organ and another drips wax on a worn upright piano. The man himself, now 68 years old, putters around the room in a loose tan suit and black hat, seemingly trying to determine which instrument will best suit an acoustic rendition of one of his many songs. At first he sits in the center, encircled by eight guitars and a banjo, all scuffed by years of use, and selects the right one for “From Hank to Hendrix,” a number off his 1992 album Harvest Moon.
It’s all very intimately wrought, except Young isn’t in his home; he’s onstage at L.A.’s Dolby Theater for the first of a four-night stand. An excitable crowd, many of whom paid extraordinarily high prices for their tickets to see Young’s acoustic tour in this 3,400 capacity room, has been screaming song titles at him. There is a sense of entitlement among these fans, as if the $400 ticket price tag has guaranteed them each a personal selection on his set list. One fan shouts, “Welcome back to LA, Neil!” Young, seemingly trying to decide if it was the best move to invite all these people into his living room, simply replies, “It’s good to be back in L.A.”
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After roaming between instruments for a few songs, which include “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and “Love In Mind,” Young began to open up to his audience, the way a reluctant host might in his own home. After barely speaking for the first 30 minutes of the performance except to grumble that the audience was “very polite,” Young offered a few anecdotes. “This song is not by me. It’s by somebody I think is a lot better than me,” Young said to precede a cover of Phil Ochs’ “Changes,” a number he performed standing with his guitar off to one side of the stage. “When I was younger, I saw a lot of great songwriters. This songwriter I’m going to tell you about was one of the best songwriters I ever saw.”
After he’d finished the song, which appeared to go off without a hitch, Young looked amused. “OK!” he said. “So some songs are so good that I write songs that are a lot like them and sometimes I even forget which one I am playing and start playing another one in the middle.”
The performance was divided into two parts, split by a 30-minute intermission, and it was by the end of the first hour that Young truly seemed to have come around to the raucous, drunken audience continually calling for various elements of his discography. Sitting amidst his many guitars, the singer began to recount the stories behind the instruments, much in the same way one might explain the significance of a household item to a grandchild who’s come to visit. After he’d run through “Harvest,” off his 1972 album of the same name, Young lifted the guitar he’d just used up toward the crowd. “This is a guitar I got from a friend of mine,” he recollected. “His name is Stills. He gave me this when I joined CSNY. He gave one to everyone, including himself.” The musician, clearly now ready to allow stories to spill from his memory, added, “There’s a lot of things about this that reminds me of stuff.” He pointed out a dent in the guitar left by a high heel. “I don’t know how that got there.”
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Young pulled out another guitar. “I’m going to tell you about this one now,” he said. “This guitar was given to me by a guy by the name of Stephen Stills.” The audience, eating up every moment of this storytelling, laughed. The musician, encouraged, continued to explain that this guitar was home to a story that may or may not be true, that once a shot was fired at the folk singer playing the guitar, piercing through the instrument and leaving the musician unharmed. “I think that happened in Denver before weed was legalized,” he noted. “They’ve come a long way.”
The first half of performance concluded with “Old Man,” which resonated more openly than earlier numbers, perhaps because Young had himself opened up to the crowd. “I’ll be back,” he said, waving at the audience. Thirty minutes later he was, marching out onto the onstage living room as if he’d merely gone into the bedroom to rest his eyes for a few minutes. The second set opened with “Goin’ Back,” from 1978’s Comes a Time, leading into “A Man Needs a Maid,” which Young performed on his grand piano with the help of a keyboard.
“A long time ago songs brought people together in a different way,” Young said at one point before launching into a rowdy rendition of crowd-favorite “Ohio.” He looked reflective, a moment of solemnity pervading his usually cheeky narration. “It did something different than what it’s doing now. Music is great no matter what you do. But music had a big moment.”
It was an acknowledgment of the present state of the music industry, in which Young has staked a recent claim with the launch of his PonoPlayer, but also a recollection of times past. Young is clearly aware of the nostalgic power he wields, particularly at a performance like this one, in a room that requires a certain level of pay grade to attend. Although the audience was somewhat diverse in age, with some younger couples seated in the (relatively) cheaper seats, much of the crowd was clearly longtime fans, having experienced his career unfold in real time. His choice of covers, from Ochs to a version of Gordon Lightfoot’s 1970 tune “If You Could Read My Mind,” centered on a certain time period, one that to Young – and to many fans – represents a golden age in music.
But it’s hard to influence a new generation of music lovers and to effectively introduce a shift in music’s purpose if it’s impossible for that generation to afford your shows. There was a tinge of a crotchety old man to this statement, as touching as it was to hear a revered musician reflect on former years. It’s one thing to acknowledge that times have changed and another to remark on that change without taking action to shift it in a comparably more positive direction. A Neil Young show should not just be for parents whose children have long left home. It should also be for the children who grew up with Buffalo Springfield vinyl on constant rotation in those homes. If the opportunity is there for them to experience the prowess of a musician like Young, whose narrative poetry still remains among the best songwriting American music has achieved, then there is also an opportunity for him to influence their own musical creation and consumption.
But Young is, of course, aware of the influence he has had regardless of who it’s been on. As his set began to wind down, leading into the inevitable two-song encore, the musician said, “Now I’m gonna do a couple of my big hits.” He added, jokingly, “You might not recognize them because now I sing them in a different language.” The final numbers, “After the Gold Rush,” “Heart of Gold,” “Thrasher” and “Long May You Run,” each earned standing ovations and the first tangible sing-alongs of the evening. “I like to be as predictable as possible, especially near the end,” Young acknowledged, wandering between his many instruments as he drew the two and a half hour performance to its conclusion.
The inexplicable coat rack, standing in the corner, remained untouched, a jacket still dangling off its hook. The candles had burned down nearly entirely, flickering wildly whenever the musician moved near. The pipe organ was used only once, hauled on the road because it’s an acceptable whim if you’re Neil Young and you want a pipe organ for a solitary four-minute song. Young’s living room, previously transported to New York’s Carnegie Hall, will move to Dallas and Chicago next month after its next three nights at the Dolby Theater. As Young strummed “Heart of Gold,” his gruff speaking voice sliding into his signature folkie croon, the audience shrieked with glee, the line “I’ve been to Hollywood/I’ve been to Redwood/I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold” imbued with a reflection of present reality.
If he was reluctant at first, particularly in the emotional generosity of his performance, the singer warmed up significantly by the end. After “Long May You Run,” offered with sincere fervor, Young stood and waved again, thanking the crowd for coming, a simple farewell for those who’d stopped by to visit him in his home.
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
A Man Needs a Maid
If You Could Read My Mind
Flying on the Ground Is Wrong
After the Gold Rush
Heart of Gold
Long May You Run
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