Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Neil Young at the Chicago Theatre

Photo by Jason Gonulsen

New glass in the window
New leaf on a tree
New distance between us
you and me

Neil Young once sang "new closeness" instead of "new distance" during live performances of "From Hank To Hendrix," and something always told me that was temporary. Or maybe it just really bothered me -- the little things always do. The positive sentiment was sweet, but the song is more about those moments when things begin to slip away than it is about forces coming together. There is a sense of urgency with "new distance," an assumed struggle. "New closeness" always seemed too safe, like everything was okay; the word never felt real, not in a song that asks, "Can we get it together, can we still stand side by side? Can we make it last like a musical ride?"

Young reverted to "new distance" on Monday at The Chicago Theatre, opening his solo-acoustic show with a quiet, heartfelt version of the aforementioned tune from Harvest Moon. He swung his legs from side to side; he sang clearly and at his own pace: "The same thing that helps you live can kill you in the end." Every word was urgent.

But maybe distance and closeness aren't mutually exclusive. When Young walked over to his grand piano before Time Fades Away's "Love in Mind," he told us that his daughter had painted the instrument because it started to look "a little drab." He stood over it, looked down, touched it softly. "Kind of like she's here with me right now," he said.

And that's what music is, isn't it? When you're far away from a friend, a lover, it closes the gap. This can be cruel, bittersweet, and wonderful all at the same time. We keep people in our hearts, and the memories never die. Faces reappear from nowhere in your mind, you remember smells, moments, good times and bad; music helps bring that all back to life.

"What am I doing here?" Young sang during "Love in Mind." "What am I doing here?"

The line is repeated for exact reasons I do not know, but I can wonder only because love -- for a person, place, object -- makes us ask this question constantly: What am I doing here? Art should make us think about what we're doing and why we're doing it.

When Young picked up what was presumably a banjo for Tonight's the Night's "Mellow My Mind," he explained that it wasn't in fact a banjo, but it just "looked like one." "I love it," he said. He didn't quite hit the high notes with his voice during the song, but we do not come to a Neil Young show looking to grade out his ability. We come to hear him try.

He tried. He gave his full heart. So much that during "Someday," a rarely played song from Freedom, he made an attempt at grunting the special effect sounds (Huh! Hah!) you hear on the studio version. That was nice, humorous even, but it did not trump the beauty of last verse's fragile promise:

Hold me, baby, put your arms around me
Give me all the love you have to give
Tomorrow won't be late
And we won't have to wait someday
We won't have to wait someday

There are so many moments like these in Neil Young's songs, the best possibly at the end of Zuma's "Cortez the Killer," which he performed on 12-string guitar after Rust Never Sleeps' "Pocahontas" to begin the second set. He sat for "Pocahonatas" but stood for "Cortez," walking around the stage while a spotlight followed his every move. This created an eerie shadow behind him as he arched his back and bent over as he played harmonica, finally getting to that moment that gives "Cortez" mystery:

And I know she's living there
And she loves me to this day
I still can't remember when
Or how I lost my way

If you can imagine this with me for a minute: Young's voice trailed off chillingly and softly as he finished the last line, his expression strained, the theatre completely silent. He finished the song wailing on harmonica, gracefully walking wherever he wanted on a stage that was filled in the center with instruments that have been by his side for decades. The song is a history lesson, but the moment was too.

Before "After the Gold Rush," which Young performed on upright piano, he explained that he paid for the instrument twice in rent before actually inquiring about purchasing it. "I know a good deal when I see it," Young said with a laugh.

This led into "Heart of Gold" from Harvest, which Young called his "hit." It was a straightforward version, but there's really no other way to play a song like that. It's still timeless, if not entirely captivating, which is what the lone encore of Rust Never Sleeps's "Thrasher" was.

"Thrasher" is a song that had not been played for 36 years until this tour. It has no chorus, just a diary of verses that tell Young's story: moving from Canada to California, and splitting from his friends, Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The show ended with lyrics that were telling:

But me I'm not stopping there,
Got my own row left to hoe
Just another line
in the field of time
When the thrasher comes,
I'll be stuck in the sun
Like the dinosaurs in shrines
But I'll know the time has come
To give what's mine

Stuck in the sun, waiting for the moment to deliver what's his. The time will eventually come. It always does.

When the lights came on, a woman behind me sighed and said, "that was too short." Which I believe was a compliment: a 68-year-old man, alone, just played twenty-one songs on acoustic guitar, piano, and organ, and she wanted more.

Love is always about wanting more, no matter the distance or closeness. And when you can't find it, or believe it's too far away, it's resting in your favorite song that triggers its place in your heart. Only you get to choose the path back home.

Set list:

Set 1
1. From Hank to Hendrix
2. On the Way Home (Buffalo Springfield)
3. Only Love Can Break Your Heart
4. Love in Mind
5. Mellow My Mind
6. Reason to Believe (Tim Hardin)
7. Someday
8. Changes (Phil Ochs)
9. Harvest
10. Old Man

Set 2
11. Pocahontas
12. Cortez the Killer
13. A Man Needs a Maid
14. Ohio (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
15. Southern Man
16. Mr. Soul (Buffalo Springfield)
17. If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot)
18. Harvest Moon
19. After the Gold Rush
20. Heart of Gold

21. Thrasher

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