Anyone paying attention knows that Neil Young, the hipster's favorite classic rocker, can plug in and shread with the best of them. But there was a different, quiet, kind of power on display at his solo acoustic show at the Dolby Theatre (best known for hosting the Oscars) on April 2.
His voice strong and clear, Young riveted the packed house for two hours, playing a variety of guitars, keyboards and harmonicas during the moving 22-song set.
Young ambled across the stage throughout the night, like a grandfather leading the kids on a tour of a cluttered attic, moving from instrument to instrument, at times telling stories, before launching with conviction into another heartfelt song.
Setting aside his reputation as "the godfather of Grunge," Young's perfomance was a testament to the enduring impact of what an accomplished artist can do with just a song, an instrument and a spotlight.
While some classics felt obligatory (how many people are really still actively mourning the Kent State killings he sang about Wednesday in the song "Ohio"?) it was poignant how relevant "Southern Man" still is in our deeply divided red-state, blue-state America, and a pleasure to hear how the crowd-pleasing beauty of "Harvest Moon" could still excite the audience with its tale of enduring love.
But while Young played a number of classics, this was not a show about anthems from anyone's youth. Shouted requests from the audience went unheeded-he came to sing what he wanted. And the man called Young largely wanted to sing about being old.
Of all his contemporaries Young may have taken the matter of aging the most seriously, even in his early days. While The Who declared "I hope I die before I get old", the Beatles playfully mused about "when I'm 64" and Bob Dylan became a youth icon while trying to sing in the voice of the old blues and folk singers who inspired him, it was Neil Young who wrote "keep me searching for a heart of gold, and I'm getting old." He was 26 at the time.
Now, at 68, he might have finally caught up to those words. They certainly seemed fitting as he sang them on Wednesday. In fact much of his performance--from his own "Old Man" to his cover of Phil Ochs' melancholy "Changes" touched upon aging, looking back, missed possibilities and similar themes. When singing Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind," he altered the final line "I don't know where we went wrong but the feeling's gone and I just can't get it back" ending instead with "and I wanna get it back." You could hear the sincerity in that statement all the way in the balcony.
It is rare to see a popular music artist, at any age, confront mortality and aging, rather than hide from it or pretend to overcome it. But Young's openness--in the heart of Hollywood, the symbolic capitol of Botox and obsession with youth, no less--gave the show realness and gravitas.
Review by Eric Greene, a special to DrFunkenberry