Neil Young Onstage Alone, On A Journey Through The Past

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A euphoric blast of applause greeted the solitary figure as he ambled out from the shadows and took a seat at the center of stage. He looked to his left and to his right, then reached for one of the acoustic guitars arranged in a circle around him. Silence; a silence brimming with reverence, fell over the 4,000 people arranged in seats in the ornate, gilded theater before him as he tested the strings. The cracking of a beer can 40 rows back sounded like an explosion in this heady, anticipatory atmosphere. Then he reached back, way, way back into his past — 50 full years — and began to sing. “When the dream came / I held my breath with my eyes closed,” he crooned; his voice, that lilting, high falsetto graced with all the sadness of the ages, totally unaffected by time.

Neil Young opened his second solo show at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago with one of his earliest compositions, a song titled “On The Way Home,” that he wrote in 1967 while still a member of the group Buffalo Springfield. It was an unexpected choice to say the least — though, when it comes to Neil Young, unexpected is standard operating procedure — but it might have been perfect. This particular gig was the third in a series of six, totally solo concerts Neil had booked in 2018 and it appears he’s been using them to embark on his own journey through the past, plumbing the depths of his own personal history through some of his favorite songs.

For the pair of Chicago concerts, he hardly could have chosen a more apt location. This venue happened to be the site of the first-ever Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young live show. The supergroup performed here back in August of 1969 as a sort of warm-up before they hit the bigger stage for a festival in upstate New York called Woodstock. “There’s two things I remember most,” Graham Nash recently told me about that gig. “First of all, we couldn’t get the truck into the back-end of the theater. Our truck driver, Jimmy DeLuca… deflated the tires on an 18-wheeler and depressed the tire pressure enough that it lowered it the four-inches he needed to get the truck in there. The second thing I remember, and more importantly, is that we had the balls to ask Joni Mitchell to open for us. Are you f*cking kidding me?”

Neil, with his off-kilter sense of humor — he’s far funnier than his dour façade would lead you to believe — also noted the historical significance of the building during the show. “I first played here on 1969,” he said. “It was CSNY’s first gig. I wasn’t even born yet. Probably why I don’t remember it.” Though he pretended his memory was shoddy, he carried reminders of that band and that era with him onstage in the form of two acoustic guitars that he revealed were “Given to me by my good friend Stephen Stills.”

Despite the fact he was performing by his lonesome, the stage was packed with an impressive array of musical instruments. Three acoustic guitars and a banjo were arranged around the stool at the center with an electric Gretsch guitar plugged into a small Fender amp on a stand near the back. There was also a black grand piano set stage right, a psychedelic baby grand piano stage left, with a stand-up piano positioned near the back, and an old-looking organ up on a drum riser just to the right. For the encore, he also brought out a ukulele.

Though there was pretty obviously a set list he was sticking to, the show unfolded almost exactly the same as the previous evening’s performance, and he would often drift back to consult it while grabbing a sip of “ginger tea,” the vibe was very relaxed. Neil would play a song or two on whatever instrument that song required, then he’d get up, maybe tell a joke or a story into the harmonica microphone dangling in front of his face, mosey on over to another instrument, play a song or two on that one, and so on. The level of intimacy between performer and crowd was incredible. It felt less like a formal “concert” and more like you’d stumbled upon Old Uncle Neil playing a few tunes in his front parlor or something.

The highlight of the set — and in a show packed with a walloping, electrified version of the anti-war/establishment screed “Ohio,” and an aching, acoustic run-through of “The Needle And The Damage Done” this is really saying something — was when Neil hunkered down behind the baby grand and proceeded to play his 1973 cautionary tale “Tonight’s The Night,” from the album by the same name. Neil pounded on the keys with a heady abandon, relaying the tragic tale of his too-soon departed roadie Bruce Berry, filling the song with all the boozy irreverence that’s packed into the original performance he laid down with his band the Santa Monica Flyers all those years ago while packed into SIR studios in Hollywood.

When the song ended, he revealed that the piano he was performing on this evening, was, in fact, the same instrument that he used to record the song originally. As it happens, his daughter Amber was the one who gave it the raspberry-lemonade paint job, and he admitted that he enjoyed looking at it and thinking of her. Then he launched into yet another song off Tonight’s The Night, “Speakin’ Out.” Even without Nils Lofgren’s iconic guitar solo, it was still pretty amazing.

In the pantheon of great, North American singer-songwriters, Neil Young has very few peers. On the touring circuit today, the only ones who can seem to touch him are Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. While Neil probably doesn’t have the discipline or the temerity of the Boss to stage a year-long stint on Broadway, telling important pieces of his life story set to a curated-collection of tunes, this unique series of solo concerts is probably as close as you might get to a facsimile of that experience. Each of the twenty songs played offered a different memory, a different bit of insight, and a different perspective on the artist we know as Neil Young. But as the man himself admonished the crowd multiple times while onstage in Chicago when they’d cry out for a preferred selection, “It’s all the same song anyway.”

1. “On The Way Home”
2. “Homefires”
3. “Love Is A Rose”
4. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”
5. “Mellow My Mind”
6. “Ohio”
7. “There’s A World”
8. “Love In Mind”
9. “One More Sign”
10. “Are You Ready For The Country?”
11. “After The Goldrush”
12. “Tonight’s The Night”
13. “Speakin’ Out”
14. “Angry World”
15. “Love And War”
16. “Peaceful Valley Boulevard”
17. “Out On The Weekend”
18. “The Needle And The Damage Done”
19. “Heart Of Gold”
20. “Tumbleweed”