EmptyNokia Theatre, Los Angeles
Tuesday, Oct. 30
When Neil Young's Chrome Dreams Tour stopped in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday night for the first of two nights at the Nokia Theatre, the stage was speckled with nothing but vintage gear and staging that was similarly archaic by today's standards. There were no automated lights or computerized effects, just hand-operated incandescent spotlights and changeable color gels. And with the exception of four tracks from the new release "Chrome Dreams II" and one from 1992's "Harvest Moon," none of the evening's 23 songs was less than 30 years old.
The irony is, the state-of-the-art venue was less than two weeks old and features all the high-tech glitz one would expect from the crowning jewel of a Los Angeles downtown reclamation project aimed to develop a West Coast answer to Times Square.
The times, they are a-changin' -- even if Neil Young hasn't.
"I used to have to worry about what I was going to say between songs," Young deadpanned in the middle of a 45-minute solo acoustic set that preceded the "plugged-in" portion of the evening. Flanked by a semi-circle of seven acoustic guitars, in the time it took him to choose his appropriate vehicle for each song, no shortage of crowd requests could be heard, as well as the not-so-surprising yell of "Impeach the president" following "Campaign."
On the other hand, the traditionally outspoken Young elected to let his music do the talking. Other than changing the final "even Richard Nixon has got soul" in the activist-minded, folk-rock favorite "Campaign" to "even George Bush has got soul," there were no scathing diatribes, just stirring songs. The acoustic set was anchored by rarities, "Ambulance Blues" and "Mellow My Mind" ebbing and flowing like high plains drifters and delivered like tumbleweeds from the heart and soul of one of North America's greatest songwriters.
With the bittersweet smell of herb floating through the air, Young's anthems of subtle resistance and heartland ethos sometimes seemed out of place in the more sterile surroundings, but nobody seemed to mind. His rough-around-the-edges demeanor and ragged vocals provided all the color that was needed as he slithered in his seat, his gray suit expectedly unkempt, the perfect complement to his grizzled delivery.
The electric portion of the evening took on more of a revivalist swing, a crunchy rhythm and blues jangle carrying "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," "Dirty Old Man" jarring along with gritty texture and "Spirit Road" sizzling with the spirit of Southern rock. "Winterlong" displayed just why Young is the predecessor to any music that is plugged in and boasts a country twang, while "The Believer" bumbled along with a pop luster.
The highlight of the night was "No Hidden Path," from the new album. A 20-minute jam of jagged textures and unrefined soul, the performance epitomized the nature of Neil Young, from subtly abrasive to bittersweet, bemoaning and enchantingly vulnerable. He played like his guitar was chiseling a musical passage through a slab of granite, and for nearly 2 1/2 hours, it was a path that brought the Nokia Theatre back to a time when idealism was more than just a word, and music was more than just a marketing machine.