Neil Young Drops By To Say Hello and Sing A Few Songs

Neil Young’s just passing through, and High Times went to see him live.
Neil Young
Courtesy Neil Young

I’ve dreaded writing about Neil Young. Ever since seeing him perform on his summer coast tour, I’ve been asked more than once, “What are you going to write about him? What are you going to say?” I stared at them blank-faced, like a total mouth-breather, and usually said, “I don’t know.” I knew what I felt while watching Young perform for the first time in my life: him alone on stage surrounded by guitars, pianos, and an organ on the stage. But what did I know after Neil Young?

Honestly, I still don’t know – to an extent.

What I do know is that the man behind genuinely life-altering music is still putting on a show. Even when Young goes quiet on stage, he’s still got a lot to say. What a presence. Maybe you can’t help projecting so many thoughts, feelings, and emotions onto the man, considering how long he’s been playing music and the image it has created for him – the guy who knows things.

Then again, at one point during the show at The Greek Theater, a fan shouted, “You’re a national treasure, Neil!” Without missing a comedic beat, Neil backed away from the compliment, raised his hand, and more or less said, “Hey, I’m just passing through.” Passing through, he literally did; later in the night, his tour bus rolled on by and honked pleasantly at gleeful fans walking the streets.

Before Young hit the stage, or let’s say, graced it, Chris Pierce set the tone for the night. What an opening act. The artist sang with both booming and tender soulfulness that captured the audience, especially as the theater filled and the sun rolled down. Like Young, Pierce was playing solo – but he took up the entire stage if you know what I mean.

Pierce and his acoustic guitar made for a strong duet. He’s just one of those singers whose playing is so well aligned with what they’re singing and how they’re singing it. Pierce’s songs, like Young’s, tell stories, such as the song “Chain Gang of Fourth of July.”

“To me, the fact that white-collar wage theft can happen and not be called a crime for so long, and there are folks being locked up for decades selling a bag of something or doing something out of desperation,” Pierce said, “That’s an archaic social construct that no longer fits ourselves and our society.”

The concert was also days after some dummy judge named Caroline Wall rejected reparations for three of the last survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Pierce took time to acknowledge their pain and the event in a song called “Tulsa Town.”

“They filed for reparations and the judge dismissed it,” Pierce said, “I just wanted to send strength and love out to them. What a horrific thing 102 years ago. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Tulsa race massacre, I wasn’t until I was 32 years old… It was the burning of Black businesses and bodies at a time when Black people were trying to find their place to thrive and survive. It took 70 years for this event to be investigated. Now, judges are still not wanting to recognize what happened.” 

Pierce’s songs, obviously, carried weight. With his powerhouse vocals, which could range from delightful to heartbreaking, he displayed respect for victims with his artistry and empathy on stage.

Now, where to begin with Neil Young? I already struggled there once before, and now I’m open to struggling again. The man, whose face is often drenched in cinematic shadow with both his hat and harmonica, first came out and sang “I’m the Ocean.” It was a fitting song choice, or at least title, given the setlist’s theme of protecting our home, Earth. Later in the night, he got the crowd to sing along to “Love Earth.” When the crowd wasn’t as passionate as he was, he let us know, “That sounds kind of wimpy.” Young, of course, being one of the few artists who could take two simple words, put ’em together, and not make them sound like a bumper sticker or obvious slogan. A simple song with a simple message that reaches the heart. Not only that, it’s just a ton of fun to sing along with Neil and the crowd.

It wasn’t difficult to stay on the same mellow page as Young on stage. Sure, I was a little high, but I didn’t need to be to get the tranquility one expects from the American and Canadian national treasure. “Hey, just passing through,” he says, but some people pass through with a little more prominence, and Young does just that.

He did his fair share of crowd work, telling stories about Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first performances at the Greek; trying to figure out why he was booed the other night at a show; and why he’s too old to play out of tune. One of my personal favorite moments at the show came when Young stopped a song after 30 seconds or so because his guitar was out of tune. No biggie, that was his reaction, and that’s something common I love about artists of Young’s stature.

Yes, they get called geniuses and mavericks and all that, but they are so not about perfection. If something goes wrong on the stage, they acknowledge and fix it; they don’t try to mask it or go with it. They know what they like, and how they like it, and damn it, Neil Young doesn’t like playing out of tune.

Young does what he pleases, as any artist should, but never at the expense of the audience. Yes, he didn’t play a bunch of hits, but who pays to see Young do what everyone else is doing anyway? He’s Neil Young. We want the unexpected from the man. If he gave us what we expected as audiences, we never would’ve gotten his body of work.

On stage, where he was surrounded by a few plants and even a train set in motion, Young wanted to shed more light on songs that may have been left in the attic, catching some dust of the years. When he sang them, of course, there wasn’t anything dusty about them. They felt new because they were coming from a new Neil Young, an artist who doesn’t stay stuck in the past. Now, after a few odd hundred words or so, what do I know about Neil Young? What can I really say about Neil Young? Well, he’s just passing through, and we’re glad he did.

  1. When Crosby, Stills and Nash came out with their first album, most young people were walking around awestruck. The incredible beauty and poetry of their songs was surpassed only by their infinitely soaring, kaleidoscopic, thrilling harmonies. Since I had just started driving and always loved music, upon getting the family clunker, I immediately installed a ‘state-of-the-art’ 8^) 8-track tape player. I was also the first to buy CS&N’s recording in my group.

    Everyone wanted to borrow my car, certainly not because it was anything special, but because the 8-track player turned it into a concert hall, and the tape of CS&N took that capability into the heavens. – Remember, FM radio was still new and mostly playing easy listening stuff in the beginning. So mono, static-filled, often fading AM radio was where we had to go for rock.

    All this prelude is to describe how we felt when the CS&N came out with their next album. Suddenly, there was this other guy there, too. It seemed impossible. How could anyone dare to add themselves the world’s most perfect harmony? But then, we listened.

    Neil Young is probably the only person in the world that could have pulled it off. His genius, profound soul, monstrous musicality and… love – did the impossible. He stretched and lifted and inspired CS&N so far, it was like moving from two dimensions into three.

    Then, after briefly performing that miracle, he ascended even further into the heavens with a solo career that continued to chart astounding, unexplored musical territories.

    If you are suffering from political madness overload, turn off all the noise, turn the lights down low, take three deep breaths and watch Neil Young’s Harvest Moon video. — Better than any therapy.

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