This post has been corrected. See below for details.
It wasn’t a big leap to wonder during Saturday’s opening night of Neil Young’s four-night run of solo acoustic concerts in Hollywood whether Jesus, if he returned to address a modern-day audience, would have to contend with a steady stream of shouts from the back for “Sermon on the Mount!” “Water into wine!” and “Free Bird!”
Young fielded a similar barrage of requests (“Cinnamon Girl!” “Down By the River!”) and comments (“You’re the man!”) from the sold-out crowd at the Dolby Theatre good-naturedly.
At one point he tacitly acknowledged the tone of almost spiritual pilgrimage in the air by shaking the water out of a harmonica onto folks sitting in the first few rows, a rock ’n’ roll priest anointing his flock. He even shifted into request mode himself after another outburst from fans, mock shouting “The Beatles!” “The Rolling Stoooooones!” “Free Bird!”
For Young, too, there seems to be a ritualistic aspect of his periodic return to the solo acoustic format of his live shows, alternating with high-decibel sessions with Crazy Horse or the various other settings he’s explored over what’s fast approaching a half-century career. It’s as if it reconnects him with the musical and spiritual foundation of his art, stripping the process back to its fundamental components of one person, one instrument and a muse.
Without a word of introduction, Young sauntered on stage, grabbed a guitar and — as he did at Carnegie Hall in January — delivered his theme statement in the form of the song “From Hank to Hendrix” from his 1992 album “Harvest Moon”:
From Hank to Hendrix
I walked these streets with you
Here I am with this old guitar
Doin’ what I do
The 2½-hour show, which included a 30-minute intermission, stretched across his career, hewing closely to the songs he’d played in New York, yet still brimming with his signature sense of spontaneity, of mercurial artistry alive in the moment, that makes Young such a hallowed figure to so many. It’s the same kind of show Jonathan Demme documented in the 2012 concert film “Neil Young Journeys.”
Most facets of a multifaceted career were represented, from Buffalo Springfield (“Mr. Soul,” “On the Way Home” and “Flying On the Ground is Wrong”) to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (“Ohio”) to the solo efforts that have occupied the bulk of his attention through his adult life. He dropped in a few relative rarities, including “Mellow My Mind” from “Tonight’s the Night,” for which he grabbed the nearby banjo, and “Philadelphia,”
But there also were plenty of cornerstone songs, including “Southern Man,” “Old Man” and “After the Gold Rush” as well as an ambitious reworking of “A Man Needs a Maid” for which he replaced the original symphony orchestra portions of the arrangement with keyboard synthesizer.
He even made room to salute a couple of other songwriters he admires, delivering Phil Ochs’ “Changes” and “If You Could Read My Mind” by fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot, both of whom he’d also saluted last fall during an abbreviated benefit performance in L.A. for the Silverlake Conservatory.
The words that cropped up most over the course of nearly two dozen songs were “love” and “change,” topics that have expressed themselves in myriad ways through one of the most dynamic careers in rock music.
As he’s done periodically over the decades, Young brought to the stage an arsenal of instruments with which he could indulge any whim — a phalanx of acoustic guitars, a baby grand piano and an upright bookending the semi-circular layout, his vintage pump organ perched on a platform at the back of the stage. Watching over all was “Woody,” the cigar-store wooden Indian that’s been Young’s silent companion on stage and off for ages.
“Woody doesn’t like me talking about him,” Young, 68, said with a wry smile late in the evening. Sporting a black fedora, gray-green long-sleeve shirt over a black T-shirt and cream-colored chinos, Young came slightly more upscale than his standard plaid flannel shirt and blue denim jeans.
He shared stories about several of the guitars he’d brought along — one given to him by longtime friend and collaborator Stephen Stills, another he said he bought in a music store in Nashville only to discover later it had once belonged to Hank Williams. As has long been the case, especially in Young’s solo shows, the sonics were virtually flawless, projecting all the richly nuanced character of his craggy voice and the lushness of his evocative but unfussy guitar work.
As a career retrospective, Saturday’s concert left little wanting, except on the question of where Young is in terms of adding to the imposing songbook he’s already created. In his “Waging Heavy Peace” book in 2012, he noted that the creative spark for his songwriting had been hard to conjure since he decided to give up smoking pot.
Although he did craft a batch of new songs for 2012’s “Psychedelic Pill” album with Crazy Horse, those were more notable for the instrumental interplay with his longtime jam pals than for their lyric insights or poetic beauty. As he put it in the book, “I’ll get back to you on that.”
Young’s run at the Dolby continues with shows Sunday night, Tuesday and Wednesday. All are sold out.
Corrected: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the final two Los Angeles shows were on Monday and Tuesday.
Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2