Neil Young at Riverside Theater
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By the end of his sold-out solo performance Friday at Riverside Theater, Neil Young was in an unexpected place, standing with arms outstretched as beautiful waves of harmonious feedback flowed from a collection of small amps behind him. “Walk with me,” he said, repeating the chorus of a new, unreleased song like a command and an affirmation. Once again, Young was taking the lead for an audience that has followed rock’s most adventurous (and befuddling) singer-songwriter down countless twisted roads and dead ends for more than 40 years.
For those who plopped down part of their mortgage payment in order to see Young in a venue one-fifth the size of what he usually plays, feedback was probably the last thing they expected to be sent off into the rainy night with. A solo Young performance promises to present the man in his most popular guise—the sensitive and childlike folkie of Harvest and occasional collaborations with Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Young made sure to dispense with that Neil right away, opening with straight-up and stunningly performed versions of three ’70s chestnuts, “My My Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue),” “Tell Me Why,” and “Helpless.”
Young made it immediately clear that his voice—a polarizing whine that for true believers cuts as often as it soothes—has not aged even as he nears his 65th birthday. But the laid-back hippie balladeer is an easy card for Young to play, and while he delivered audience favorites with ease and comforting predictability (save for a breathtaking, hymn-like take of “I Believe In You,” transported to grand piano) it was obvious that he was far more invested in the batch of wild, loud, and roughly written new songs sprinkled liberally into the set.
Tracks like “You Never Call,” “Peaceful Valley, and “Hitchhiker” will presumably surface on his forthcoming Daniel Lanois-produced record. But then again, maybe not. With Young, the unexpected is always expected. If these songs do make the album, it will be interesting to see if Young irons out some of the kinks as he performs them every night on this tour; in their current state, they are mired in mawkish imagery and Young’s by-the-numbers guitar rumble. During the odd “You Never Call,” audience members giggled when Young plaintively sang lines like, “You’re in heaven with nothing to do, the ultimate vacation with no back pain / All we do is work, work, work.” If the lyrics were supposed to be funny, Young’s poker-faced delivery didn’t give any hints.
Later, on the oppressively heavy-handed “Peaceful Valley,” a catch-all protest song commenting on everything from genocide of American Indians to global warming, Young casually dropped gag-worthy groaners like, “A child was born and wondered, ‘Why?’” that practically screamed to be edited out of the final draft. Let’s hope Lanois uses his red pen judiciously. “Rumblin'” and the raging drug-taking inventory of “Hitchhiker” fared better, mostly because they were more visceral and less lyrics-centric, with Young whipping up an impressive, side-two-of-Rust Never Sleeps-style racket for just an old Canadian whirling around on a lone guitar.
Even if some of the new material paled next to his greatest hits—though, to be fair, what doesn’t pale next to that?—Young admirably stood behind his latest work with characteristic courage and conviction. No matter what, “Shakey” continues to more forward, courting new adventures and repeating old mistakes; it’s your choice whether to walk with him.
After trotting out one of his best-known songs, the rapturously received “Old Man,” Young opted to end the show with the blasting “Walk With Me,” side-stepping an easy and more typical set-closer like “Heart Of Gold.” It was a textbook example of not giving the audience what it wants, which, for a fan of Neil Young, is all you can ask for.
It’s too bad that more Neil Young fans at Friday’s show weren’t also fans of Bert Jansch, a legendary British folk singer who has influenced several generations of guitar-pickers both in his own country and stateside. Jansch's nimble playing and wintry vocals struggled to rise above the chatter of the beer-buzzing seniors that composed much of the audience. It was like watching the world’s most accomplished busker perform on a particularly bustling street corner.