The one word – feeling, really more than anything else – that keeps coming back to me as I think of the Neil Young show I saw, now two weeks ago, January 9th at Carnegie Hall, is direct. I was expecting, and of course hoping that the concert would be great. But I was surprised at just how deeply it hit me, and on how many different levels when I thought about it afterward. My first time in the legendary venue, it was the second time in my life seeing Neil Young in concert. The first time was in the mid 90’s, with a close friend and his father, who had been an old school Neil fan since the 70s. It was my very first rock concert actually. It happened to be one of the rare electric tours that didn’t have Crazy Horse as the backup band, instead using the great Booker T & the MGs, the legendary musicians responsible for much of the Memphis Soul / Stax Records sound, which was all explained to my friend and me by his dad that night. At the time, being the kid I was, I was more excited for the two openers, Blind Melon and Soundgarden, who I knew from MTV. But I remember being struck by the rawness of electric Neil, going full out on “Down by the River” and “All Along the Watchtower”. And I remember my friend’s father describing to us how one of the things Neil was known for was his simple (i.e. few notes), but extremely passionate, emotion-driven electric lead guitar style, which was very much on display that night.
Cut to 20 years later, during which time I’d listened to, obsessed over, thought about, identified with, and so intensely and consistently been touched by Neil Young’s music that he’s become one of the very few constant examples of “truly great artists” ever-present in my own personal, constantly-changing, internal estimation of things. Loving so many of the different faces of a career that has spanned the spectrums of genre, style, sound, form, marketability, of-the-moment-cultural-relevance, and yet always maintained a consistent voice and quality while never actually repeating itself, I purposely didn’t want to know which Neil was going to be there this night. I even tried to not let myself see anything online about the run beforehand, but when the review of the first night landed in my inbox (care of this publication), it proved too much to resist. And so I was thrilled to read that it would be solo acoustic Neil, surrounded only by a number of guitars and pianos onstage, from which he would select to play each individual song, just like the legendary 1971 concert at Massey Hall which was released as a stunning live album 36 years later.
He began understatedly enough, walking onstage and launching directly into ‘From Hank to Hendrix’ one of the potentially looming divorce-tinged love songs from the now classic 1992 Harvest Moon album. Immediately that one-in-a-species voice was doing its thing, full on display and live, ringing clear through to the upper balcony of as acoustically perfect a venue as I’ve ever heard sound in. And from there, starting with the opening chords of ‘Helpless’ through what seemed like brilliant gem after brilliant gem after brilliant gem, he very quickly pulled what felt like the entire room into a mesmerizing state of transcendence, broken only by an intermission.
The feeling was a quietly vibrating, exuberant joy, one characterized not by hysteria, volume, or grandiosity, but by gentle, light, yet still extreme, beauty. And I can’t stress enough how much feeling was present in that room – just how massively emotive and emotional the entire thing was. There were a few times that I realized my eyes had been tearing for basically entire songs.
One thing that kept hitting me over and over was this powerful sense of melody; amazingly strong melody, specifically just how innately natural-feeling yet at the same time extremely characteristic and idiosyncratic these familiar note sequences were (familiar whether you knew them by heart or had never heard them before). Of course, our conception of Neil Young is in many ways inextricable from his singing voice, but there was this continued sensation that this high, sonorous, perfectly imperfect human animal sound was effortlessly drifting us through some great metaphysical river. “Melody is king” many say, and from a cultural and observational standpoint this has been borne out generation after generation, but in this instance – when manifested through one of the world’s greatest songwriters – the saying, while remaining completely true, also demonstrates just how insufficient a platitude like this is at conveying the depth, nuance, and individuality displayed by a truly world-class songwriter and performer. You can just think about them (or go listen) – ‘After the Gold Rush’ ‘Birds’ ‘Harvest’ ‘Heart of Gold’ ‘Ohio’ ‘Needle and the Damage Done’ – literally every song he played displayed a pied piper’s like melodic pull. (And on the other hand, a completely fascinating sidenote occurred when he played one of the two covers of the night. I was kind of pleasantly shocked during ‘Needle of Death’ by Bert Jansch, at just how similar the song was – melody and chord progression – to one of my favorite Neil album tunes, ‘Ambulance Blues’ off 1974’s brilliant On The Beach, an album that’s so heavy & haunting – and I mean that in the best possible way – that it doesn’t seem to get mentioned too much. In fact, he even told a story of the two songwriters touring together a few years ago, jokingly adding that he had been obliged to, since he had stolen so many of the elder artist’s licks over the years. It was a reminder of how, even amidst the unmistakable output of a cultural giant of an artist, none of us is anything close to an island). So anyway, that was the melody part of it.
But everything about it was just so musical. I had no idea how great a piano player he is, and again, nothing overly complicated, but this movement, naturalness, and absorption just seemed to be happening every moment.
Which leads me back to where I began this piece; to the main feeling I walked out of there having experienced, which was this indescribable directness with which these songs, these melodies and words, this sound, penetrated into the room and deep into me. From the word go there was no barrier. This master of the forms of songwriting and performance had quietly and seemingly unassumingly shot music, art, experience, humanness, beauty, so directly into us that the massive positive feeling was undeniable. That’s a gift I guess, or mastery, or genius, or whatever you want to call it. But it was definitely real this night.
I’ve been wondering for a long time how one could describe or denote that intensely human, immediate, simple while at the same time deeply complex feeling of existence you get when hearing his music; both haunting in its recognition of mortality yet at the same time easy, light, and full of hope and intense beauty. To so many people (me included) Neil Young represents much more than just “great music” or “great art” and the word that keeps coming back is eternal. Like a Beethoven symphony, a Kubrick movie, a poem by Emily Dickinson, or a painting by Whistler, Hopper, Rembrandt, or a sunset, a memory, childhood. And like the very greatest of songs, at once composition and performance of the highest degree of human capacity to express and to touch, of which so many of this man’s are beyond question examples of. And this concert was part of that too; just one more iteration of eternity by a master who’s done it many times already. I’m just glad I was there.
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