I am damn lucky that my mom has good taste in music. First, she passed that gift down to me. Second, her Mothers Day gift was four tickets to see Neil Young at Shea’s.
When Neil’s solo Twisted Road tour rolled into town on Wednesday, I found myself in orchestra four, row L. For those of you unfamiliar with Shea’s, that means just left of center, about forty feet from where he stood on the stage. Absolutely phenomenal seats, with a view that allowed me to see every finger move on the fretboard, and all the emotions that played on his face.
Bert Jansch, a Scottish folk guitarist, opened the show with some beautiful Scottish and Irish folk music. While his accent left lyrics at times unintelligible, he had a gift for fingerpicking. He played his guitar with striking confidence, keeping the crowd entertained as we waited for the headliner.
The stage was set like an antique shop: old lamps, 1940’s style kitchen chairs, a wooden cigar shop Indian, and of course several guitars and pianos. Throughout the show, he would switch on and off between a few acoustic guitars, a Les Paul, an ES-335 hollow-body electric, an upright piano, a baby grand, and an organ. Between the stage setup, the seats, and the intimate atmosphere that Shea’s offered, it felt as though the whole show was just for me.
When Neil Young finally strolled on, the crowd went crazy. But he calmly sat down, picked up an acoustic, and launched right into “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).” It was the first time I heard or saw him play live, and it was nearly a religious experience. To hear his music on an iPod or the radio is one thing, but to watch him make it in front of you is unbelievably powerful. He continued on with a mix of his classic acoustic folk rock, and the groundbreaking electric songs that earned him the title “godfather of grunge.”
Some of the crowd favorites included “Helpless,” and the unreleased, autobiographical “Hitchhiker.” He performed one of the best versions of “Ohio” I’ve ever heard, just a few weeks past the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, and got a great reaction from the crowd when he updated the lyrics of “After the Gold Rush,” singing ‘look at mother nature on the run/in the twenty-first century.’ Finally, he closed with the song my mom wanted to hear, “Cinnamon Girl.”
As Neil walked off stage, the crowd stayed on its feet applauding. No one dared move; the whole theatre knew that he would be back for more. After a minute or two, he slipped back onstage with a beer in hand and began his encore. The final song was “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” the electric version of the song he opened with. It was a genius way to close the show, and I’m happy he chose it. Apart from being one of my favorite songs (either version), it reminded me of the Nick Orrange memorial collage at UB, where one of his Facebook statuses is displayed prominently: “once you’re gone, you can’t come back/when you’re out of the blue, and into the black.”
Neil Young isn’t quite so young anymore; he joked about himself to the crowd, commenting “sixty-four and there’s so much more,” a reference to the song “Old Man.” But age has not slowed him down. Look at his hair, and you see gray; look at his face, and you see lines of age. But look at his body as he plays, and listen to his voice, and its as though he hasn’t changed since Woodstock. Dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, with a white cowboy hat, he would bend and sway along to the music, playing and feeling with his entire body.
I promise you, if I had walked out of the theatre and right into the Devil, I would have sold my soul then and there to play like Neil Young.