The first time I heard Neil Young’s music I was in high school. I didn’t like it. I had a hard time getting past the barbed wire guitar riffs and his thin, reedy vocals. Of course, I was listening to a lot of John Denver at the time, so there’s absolutely no accounting for one’s music appreciation evolution. When I was in college, I was reintroduced to Neil by my roommate. While I considered Young an oddity, I grew to appreciate his song writing, his offbeat look at the world, and his simple, but effective guitar style unique in the rock world. Today, I see Neil Young as rock’s grand old man. I put his electric and acoustic work against any artists, and Young does well by any comparison. He is on my bucket list of performers to see before one of us makes our way to rock and roll heaven. When son Patrick called me at journalism camp to tell me he bought us tickets to see Neil for my birthday, I was thrilled.
Saturday night Young played at Key Arena. With a new album, Psychedelic Pill, set to be released, I was certain Neil, playing with his longtime band, Crazy Horse, would be playing some new material. Young is different than the oldies reunion set. He never retired, or took a long break. He never “broke up” so to speak. Take a look at his discography and you’ll see he’s released a new studio album almost every year since 1968. That doesn’t include live albums or anthologies, those are new work. Needless to say his catalog is massive. While I consider myself a fan, I simply can’t keep up. So I approached the concert with the devotion of the legion of Young admirers, as well as with anxiety my favorite songs wouldn’t miss the set list.
I hadn’t been to Key Arena since it’s big remodel a decade ago. Heck it may have been three decades ago when I saw the Who. We arrived at about 6:50, roughly 40 minutes before the scheduled start time. Pat led us to our seats and then we ducked into one of little drinking areas to have a beer. (Just to be clear, the famous beer prices at Safeco Field have nothing on these guys at $9.00 a pop.) We were shocked when the lights went down and the sound went up at 7:15. We didn’t rush in to catch the pleasant but uninteresting tones of Everest. We managed to get seated for the last couple songs of their set. This is about the same time a good portion of the crowd began to settle into their seats and those choosing the adventure of the floor began to fill that area.
Pat and I wondered who might be the guest act. Neil opened with a number of well known artists on this tour. Patti Smith is scheduled to open for him on some of the later dates of this Alchemy tour. When we were told Los Lobos were the openers I was intrigued. I’ve heard a couple of their songs, but never given them a lot of thought. They proved to be very good, very competent. There sound is very guitar-heavy, with a very cool sax blasting in the background. They were fun to listen to, but not quite special enough. I guess I was kind of thinking that a band from East L.A. called Los Lobos would have a little more of that Latin/Mexican influence. My problem, not theirs.
After a very short break Neil popped on the stage with his longtime collaborators, Crazy Horse. They immediately fired up “Love and Only Love,” from Ragged Glory, which sent them into an extended jam. Probably the most exciting part of the show was to see Neil in his t-shirt and jeans, unadorned bald spot, and his old guy belly, playing music like he did 40 years ago. Young was 27 when Harvest was released in 1972. On the stage, 67-year old Young played with passion and enthusiasm. He had the trademark Neil Young vocals, and played off guitarist Frank Sampedro throughout the night. Together they played four songs from their new album as well as a number of classic Neil Young songs. Most took the same pattern. The familiar guitar lick. Simple and honest, and then launch into song, and followed by an extended jam, more song, and about 12 minutes later the end. Cinnamon Girl; The Needle and the Damage Done; Hey, Hey, My My (Into the Black); all received the same treatment. In all the set was about two and a half hours. It was quite an experience. He even managed to sneak in Mr. Soul from his Buffalo Springfield days.
If I have a complaint it is that the treatment of each song, with the long jams, was A) not special after a while, and B) limited the setlist.) I was very excited by the jams the first few songs. It showed us a genuine Neil Young, playing with passion and energy that belied his age. For a guy that suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm a few years back, he seemed anxious to show he was healthy and on top of his game. Unfortunately, after each song, that seemed less and less unique and inspiring. The other issue is that only thirteen songs, including an encore were squeezed into the set. Because each song was so long, they playing style crowded out other worthy songs I would have liked to hear. For example, Cinnamon Girl was recorded at slightly under three minutes. Draw it out another ten minutes, and you’re taking space for another classic from the Neil Young catalog. “Like a Hurricane”, “Ohio,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” are just a few songs that didn’t make the setlist. In that respect, I was disappointed.
If Young’s goal was to share his new music and show us he’s still got it-mission accomplished. In every technical aspect of the show-musicianship, vocals, fronting the band, energizing the crowd-Young was superb. Giving the crowd a broad range of his extensive body of work, not so much. It was a great show. I’m glad I went, but I did leave a bit disappointed.