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In concert: Neil Young at Constitution Hall

neil youngNeil Young split his set between '70s classics and brand new songs Monday night at Constitution Hall. (All photos by Tracy Woodward/TWP)

By David Malitz

Neil Young's neverending desire to live in the present can be both his most fascinating and frustrating quality. Only a decade into his career he already possessed one of rock's great songbooks yet continued to add to it with a Woody Allen-like regularity. He sang about war in the '70s, went electronic in the early '80s, formed a grunge superpower alliance with Pearl Jam in the '90s and sang about war again in the '00s. He'll play his hits, but you can tell his heart is always with what's next.

His solo performance Monday at Constitution Hall, where he toggled between acoustic and electric guitar, pump organ and piano, was a sort of compromise. Half of the set consisted of '70s classics - "My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," "Tell Me Why," "Helpless." (And that was just the opening trio.) The rest of the songs were brand new, unreleased compositions that have been debuted on his current week-old tour.

It's no surprise which batch was more immediately fulfilling. "Helpless" remains a uniquely devastating dirge and seeing Young trudge and slash through an ear-ringing electric version of "Cortez the Killer" is like watching Albert Pujols swing a baseball bat - it just comes so naturally.

But seeing the 64-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer navigate his way through those new songs offered a more voyeuristic thrill. No audience member was able to exercise his or her perceived $200-paid right to sing along. For half of the 90-minute set it was Young playing the role of rugged iconoclast, making his audience sit through these works-in-progress in order to get to those 35-year-old favorites. Nine songs were greeted with wild applause at the first lyric; the rest were greeted with questioning whispers and staggered bathroom runs.

neil young

"I sang for justice and I hit a bad chord/But I still try to sing about love and war," he offered in his standard warble on "Love and War," a meandering acoustic number that almost seemed like an apology for his 2006 Iraq protest album, "Living With War." "Peaceful Valley" was a similarly somber folk story, starting in the times of Native American massacres ("Bullets hit the bison from the train/Shots rang across the peaceful valley/White man laid his foot upon the plain" and working toward present day climate concerns ("A polar bear was drifting on an ice float/Sun beating down from the sky/Politicians gathered for a summit/And came away with nothing to decide").

Young has hardly ever been an inscrutable lyricist and that trend was even more apparent with these new songs. "You Never Call" was filled with some laugh lines ("I know you're going to the hockey game/The Red Wings are coming to town/I saw your car in the parking lot/In-N-Out Burger fries all around") and "Sign of Love" was as straightforward ode to a lover as you'll find ("We both have silver hair/And a little less time/But there are still roses on the vine").

None of those songs seem likely to enter the Young pantheon, although the appropriately-named "Rumblin" offers the greatest promise thanks to the staggering low-end sensations he created with just a single electric guitar. There was no rhythm section in tow yet the floors in the venue were vibrating just the same and even more so on the version of "Cinnamon Girl" that followed. A full solo electric outing would be a memorably sternum-shaking experience.

"They're all the same. Good vibrations," he said to the audience before his lone encore number. It was a head-scratching statement, especially as it was just one of two times he addressed the crowd, but so was his choice for set closer. "I feel your strength/I feel your faith in me," he sang on "Walk With Me," another debut. But that lyric almost seemed besides the point. It's great to have fans, but it's Young's faith in himself as an artist that will keep him consistently intriguing for as long as he's still at it.

neil young

neil young

By David Malitz  |  May 25, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags: Neil Young  
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Neil Young was painting an aural picture for us all last evening. His guitars were his brushes and at the end, like any work of art, you have to look at the finished product as a whole. He sang about life, and love and loss in an incredibly personal way. I've been lucky to see him perform many times over the years and every show is different from the one before. Anyone who was expecting him to sit on a stool and hear him play an evening's worth of acoustic hits hasn't followed his career very closely. One t-shirt for sale at the tables said it best: "I said solo, they said acoustic". Long May You Run, Neil...

Posted by: rollingphone | May 25, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

I've been following Neil Young's music since I was a pre-teen, and I'm happy to hear new songs from him. Sure, I like the old stuff, but I don't see him as a dinosaur, a la Rolling Stones, or something. He's not the "oldies circuit" for me. I welcomed his new music in the '70s, I even tolerated it in the mid-80s, and I loved what I heard last night. I was more excited by the new stuff than any opportunity to sing along. I'll get my fill of that when I see Tom Petty.

Neil Young has the talent, interest, and self-confidence to stay relevant and speak to the times. Sometimes he's speaking to what's going on in his own life, and sometimes to what's going on in mine. I relish hearing what he has to say about both.

I still respect the relevance of his older work, and remind myself about where he was in his life, and what was going on when the songs were written. People at the show were calling for "Sugar Mountain." I thought about my college roommate becoming wistful at the thought of turning twenty. Well, yeah, you know. Neil was a youngster when he wrote the song.

I'll take it all... old, new, safe, controversial... Neil is willing to experiment. He's not just touring to give the old fans comfort food, and pay the bills.

As for that comment "They're all the same", I was puzzled, but wondered if maybe he was giving a humorous response to a quiet comment from someone up front in the audience. Dunno.

Posted by: ItchyPajamas | May 25, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Decent set. As the author describes, the response was up and down throughout the evening. What can't be debated is that NY is a phenomenal musician and song writer. Personally, After the Gold Rush on the pump organ was the highlight of the evening. Absolutely phenomenal.

Posted by: Alczervik | May 25, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I paid $150 too much for this concert. In thirty-six years of concert going, this was undoubtedly the WORST concert I have ever been to; I walked out and was NOT alone in doing so. Several people walked out because of the horrific sound system, which made NY come across as an amateur teenager with a new Costco guitar and amplifier. He should definitely fire the sound crew for incompetence, but given that he barely mumbled two incoherent lines to the audience, I doubt he cares.
If anyone remembers Bono's last DC performance and how he repeatedly pontificated to the audience, they'd be praying for that mishap again instead of the ridiculous "performance" given by Young. I'll take Rare Earth for $4 any day over this monstrosity that was a mockery of what used to be an outstanding, talented musician.

Posted by: laflair | May 25, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

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