Neil Young, craftsman and his tools
What a run for L.A. classic-rock fans: The Eagles closed their six-night christening of the new downtown Nokia Theatre on Saturday, Bruce Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band for a two-nighter Monday and Tuesday at the venerable Sports Arena, and Neil Young made it a trifecta Tuesday, opening a pair of shows at the Nokia that wraps up Friday.
And what a case study in the varying ways to approach a performance. The Eagles exemplify the curatorial method, night after night meticulously re-creating songs as they sounded on their original recordings. Springsteen pours as much ragged passion as humanly possible into each night’s shifting set list.
And then there’s Young.
His “Chrome Dreams II” tour is split into two not-so-discrete halves that combine for a wide-screen window onto the creative process. The first part of his 90-minute set was an utterly solo, utterly acoustic trip through a baker’s dozen songs that felt like a guided tour through a master craftsman’s workshop.
Young surrounded himself with the tools of his trade -- a semicircular cove of acoustic guitars flanked by an upright piano and a baby grand with a synthesizer keyboard on top, and that other piece of indispensable solo folkie equipment, harmonicas.
This, he tacitly informed the 7,000 or so fans who paid rapt attention, is where songs are created, out of a single inquisitive, disciplined and inspired mind.
The opened-up stage reinforced the kind of theatrical bent Young has long incorporated in his performances and cinematic experiments. It was cluttered not only with band equipment but with props alluding to the workshop atmosphere. Ladders lay on the floor, colored klieg lights were out for all to see. A stack of art canvases at the back of the stage came into play in the second half as title cards to announce and illustrate each song title.
A crew member outfitted as a painter successively placed each large work on an easel at stage left as the band bit into one after another song.
“Here I am with this old guitar, doin’ what I do,” Young sang at the outset in 1992’s “From Hank to Hendrix.” It’s not in the least a love song to his wife, Pegi, who joined him singing backup during the second half of his segment after her own opening set, which was modestly charming for its lack of pretension.
But as the opening salvo for this concept-driven evening, the song also served as an acknowledgment of the crucial role an audience plays for any artist who chooses to share his art with the world. “I always expected that you should see me through / I never believed in much, but I believed in you,” he confessed in hushed, reverential tones that typified the acoustic set.
The implicit bond with his audience was evident in his casual banter with those who felt compelled to yell something his way between songs.
After a barrage of competing requests, and without looking up from the harmonica brace he was monkeying with, Young cracked one of his Mona Lisa smiles and said, “You’re blowing my mind!” He ignored those requests and followed the one voice that mattered: that of his muse.
He refused to click on the autopilot, whether revisiting cornerstones of his 40-year-deep song catalog such as “After the Gold Rush” and “Old Man,” or conjuring up off-the-beaten-path items including “Sad Movies” and “Ambulance Blues,” or songs as freshly minted as “Dirty Old Man” and “Spirit Road” from the new album.
He gave fans the right to stroll down memory lane if that was their mission, but he felt his way through each number, searching for a new way to pick, strum or phrase every line so they could live anew in the moment.
After the first half’s exercise in intimacy -- at least as much as can be established in a 7,000-seat room -- he returned with multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith, bassist Rick Rosas and Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina to let his inner extrovert loose, cranking the volume to 10. (Evidently he saves 11 for the full-fledged Crazy Horse shows.)
The way he stamped, bobbed and weaved while wringing the neck of a trusty Gibson, it was as though he was intuitively locating the feng shui point on stage where he could channel the note or phrase he was after at any given point.
A Young concert is never simply an opportunity to promote his latest album, so it wasn’t a big surprise that he bypassed the “Chrome Dreams II” magnum opus, the 18-minute “Ordinary People.” Yet he gave the jam-hungry contingent plenty to chew on with a stretched-out version at least that long of “No Hidden Path,” an invitation to anyone who has a spiritual truth to offer him: “Show me the way and I’ll follow you today.”
At the end, he uttered a humble, “Thank you for being here. We really appreciate it.” After a performance that made what felt like so private a process completely public, his audience might well have said the same.