Neil Young Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center Dallas, Texas Thursday, April 17, 2014
Don't tell Neil Young what to do. He may have grown into some grandfatherly approximation of old age, full of rambling stories and an easy, self-deprecating sense of humor. But deep down, he's the same prickly soul that he's always been.
That simple truth was borne out once more last night when Young visited the Meyerson for an intimate, one-man show. As he began explaining the origins of one of his many guitars (he had nine of them) late in the evening, he was interrupted by an impatient fan, who demanded from the balcony that he "just play it." Young, seated in a chair in the middle of stage, playfully shot back, "Don't push me" -- but when the fan repeated his demand the singer's good humor quickly wore out.
"What is this, work?" Young snapped, glaring up into the darkness of the auditorium with his head cocked back. And with that, he launched into a rendition of "Harvest Moon" that bristled far more than it was ever intended to do.
See also: The Ten Best Neil Young Songs
Afterward, Young did his best to put the incident behind him, even cracking jokes about it. At one point, he flicked the water from his wetted harmonica towards the balcony, quipping, "I think you could run for governor now" -- a remark that elicited a healthy laugh from the crowd. But then this was just the sort of thing that people, knowingly or unknowingly, had paid for, and paid for handsomely (with tickets starting around a cool $100): a night alone with Young, and all that that might entail.
It was appropriate that the Canadian legend ("I'm barely Canadian," he joked at one point) should drop in a cover of Phil Ochs along the way, for he was fully in the mode of a coffee shop folkie on this visit. He was thoughtful, funny, and more than a little meandering as he spun yarns between sets, a fact that was as much a part of the performance as the songs themselves. The stage was cluttered with instruments -- a circle of guitars; a grand piano and an upright; a pipe organ in back -- and Young would saunter around from one to the other, blowing absentmindedly on the harmonica hung around his neck. If we were stepping into his world, he felt no need to give it any order.
Of course, Young has always had a Jekyll and Hyde streak, and the one-man premise was bound to reinforce that fact. At times, the songs didn't come off at their best: on "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," he struggled to hit the upper register of his voice, while he mangled the chords of "Mellow My Mind," an otherwise understated beauty that took on a strangely jaunty air. Even "Southern Man," which he did justice with a wailing rendition, was all the same a shadow of the furious original. Many of Young's greatest songs simply weren't meant to be ballads.
The tension between Young's different personas has a way of bringing him into collision with himself, but at the Meyerson, there were times where he was in collision with his audience as well -- and not just the (likely embarrassed) man in the balcony. There were catcalls all night long, sure, and a few boneheaded ones at that. But it was fascinating to see how the crowd reacted to certain songs, too. "Pocahontas" drew eager applause, with at least one gentleman throwing up devil horns for the duration. "A Man Needs a Maid" was met with more laughter. "Ohio" even received a standing ovation. But for what reason?
It's easy to mistake Young's demeanor for something that it isn't. His distrust of authority, no-bullshit mentality, and affinity for the working man could come off as being more blue collar or homespun than it really is. At heart, he's an iconoclast, even a contrarian, and his criticisms of, say, government, have more to do with an underlying suspicion of people and their systems. Cheering along to one of his "protest" songs means way more than mere politics.
As the show drew to a close, Young manipulated that fact ever more deftly. At the close of the main set (or main second set, as he split the night in half with an intermission), he teased, "We've been building up to the big hit," which of course was "Heart of Gold" -- a song he's "gotten a lot of mileage out of." And it was everything it should've been, with a pattering guitar line and a booming vocal that saw his voice on full song.
Yet, for the encore, Young turned right around on expectations, playing "Thrasher," a song that was most definitely never a hit. Hell, there's not even a chorus, just a weaving, colorful lyric that pours out in one long stream. In its way, it was every bit as moving as "Heart of Gold." You just had to be able to follow along, was all.
Critics' Bias: It's Neil Young, damn it.
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The Crowd: Older, and very dressed for the occasion.
Overheard in the Crowd: "TEXAS!"
Setlist: 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 Someday Changes Harvest Old Man (Set break) Pocahontas A Man Needs a Maid Ohio Southern Man Mr. Soul If You Could Read My Mind Harvest Moon After the Gold Rush Heart of Gold