It was a nice summer West Coast evening, but Neil Young was full of darkness last night. Not “bad mood Neil” darkness, mind you. Instead, the songs were weighted with that sort of downcast brooding he employed on Sleeps With Angels and, especially, his soundtrack to the film Dead Man. Whether it was an old crowd-pleaser like “Cortez the Killer” or new songs like “Love and War” and “Peaceful Valley”, one could sense storm clouds surfacing from inside the man singing them–but they were laced with golden tones, as well.
Neil strode onto the Paramount’s stage in his fedora, sport jacket, and jeans. He paced rather mindfully about the stage, but by the time he sat down with his acoustic and launched into “My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” it was obvious he would spend most of the night in his own world. Clearly, his voice is in top condition these days, as he rounded out vowels in his tinny stoner drawl and made the verses ring out like bells.
He fulfilled casual fans’ wishes for classics early on by following “My My Hey Hey” with “Tell Me Why” and “Helpless”, but soon tore into “You Never Call”, a ponderous song about the death of his longtime friend L.A. Johnson. The song was acoustic, but damned heavy, reverberating gloom-and-doom low notes that evoked those aforementioned inner-turmoil clouds. He carried that mood into the next couple of songs, “Love and War” and “Peaceful Valley”, both summing up one of the night’s themes–we humans, capable of such greatness, really have a knack for fucking shit up, especially nature. These were powerful numbers, especially “Peaceful Valley”, which was reminiscent of his time-traveling songs “Trans Am” and “Pocahontas” in the way it rendered historical ugliness relevant to modern times.
The night’s centerpiece was inarguably his raging take on “Hitchhiker”, one of his unearthed gems that served as a harrowing bit of autobiography that glances over his odd life while cataloging all the drugs he’s ingested along the way. Other great moments followed–“Leia”, a piano-pop song presumably about his new granddaughter; “Sign of Love” an echo-y electric rocker about love and faith; a bleak, ambient re-working of “Cortez the Killer”; an absolutely lovely solo piano take on “I Believe In You”.
But for me, “Hitchhiker” was the moment I kept returning to. There is a bone-chilling element in that song that I can’t quite put my finger on, one that was ever-present throughout his entire performance. The song burned with that raging defiance present in all of his best work. But since the song (on its surface) is little more than a look back on his life, well, why all the rage? “Hitchhiker”, like the rest of the show seemed to be about staring old age in the face. Gone is the comfortable middle-aged nostalgia of Harvest Moon and Silver & Gold. Fuck that. These days, friends and relatives are dead or dying off, grandchildren are being born, Neil will be 65 this November. And after all these years, humans are still capable of such waste and beauty. Life is weird, even weirder with age, and Neil–thank God–is still here to sing about it.
That said, this forthcoming Daniel Lanois-produced album of Neil’s should be a real stunner.
Full Setlist for Diehard Obsessives
1. My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)
2. Tell Me Why
4. You Never Call
5. Peaceful Valley
6. Love And War
7. Down By The River
10. Sign Of Love
12. After The Gold Rush
13. I Believe In You
15. Cortez The Killer
16. Cinnamon Girl
17. Old Man
18. Walk With Me