“Seems like that guy singin’ this song been doing it for a long time.
Is there anything he knows that he ain’t said?“
Falling from Above, Neil Young
At 77, with a recording career stretching back over a half century, Neil Young is a living legend…but don’t call him old, man. At the White River Amphitheatre in Auburn, Washington, Young recently clearly had something to say, performing solo for nearly 9,000 fans in attendance and proving that he’s as vital and relevant as ever.
For Young’s first tour following the Covid pandemic, Neil is playing up and down the US west coast (Neil Young’s 2023 Coastal Tour: Solo in 3D). As a polio (and other health-related ailments) survivor, he’s understandably skittish about exposure to the Covid-19 virus and this first venture back out on the road was planned solely for outdoor venues. After consulting his Farm Aid compañero and friend, Willie Nelson, Young decided he wasn’t ready for indoor gigs saying, “So I’m staying outdoors.”
Beyond the venue selection, during a Zoom call with his website’s Patron subscribers, he said, “I don’t want to come back and do the same songs again…I’d rather be doing these other songs I haven’t done.” In a solo performance that spanned nearly a hundred minutes on July 20, Neil played songs both familiar and obscure, covering his remarkable life and career. Clearly in a good mood, Neil was chatty, joking with the audience, and asking every few songs, “What’s your favorite planet?!” to which we all joyfully responded, “Mother Earth!”
Opener Chris Pierce turned in a well-received folk/gospel/bluesy 35-minute opening set featuring songs that were, essentially calls to action for various causes: fighting racism, preserving human dignity, and caring for the planet. After a short pause to rearrange the stage, the house lights dimmed (although the sinking summer sun still illuminated the sky behind us), and Neil wandered out from the shadows, strolling onto a stage that looked like it could have been his living room. Surrounded by a “glowing” fireplace, a repurposed weather vane displaying a Mazzeo painting, and various candles and houseplants, he picked up his 12-string guitar and strummed the opening chords to “I’m the Ocean” the 7-minute epic from Mirror Ball, his 1995 collaboration with Pearl Jam.
An expansive song, I was struck by a lyric that seems to acknowledge Young’s role as an artistic bridge between his past and the future:
“People my age, they don’t do the things I do.
They go somewhere, while I run away with you”
As he sang, I thought of Walt Whitman’s, Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).” Just as Whitman’s work celebrates both the unique and universal, so too does Neil Young. A song about aging, friendship, tragedy, and technology, “I’m the Ocean” was a perfect opener for the show (as it has on every date of the Coastal Tour), its lyrics examining the depth and breadth of the human condition with all its contradictions, foibles, and imperfections:
“Trying to turn against the flow,
I’m the ocean, I’m the giant undertow”
Watch Neil Young perform “I’m the Ocean” with Pearl Jam in 1995 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on YouTube:
During his 2014 solo tour, Young had covered songs by folk artists he admired: Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Phil Ochs — acknowledging those who’d come before and inspired him. As such, the setlist for this show eschewed hits in favor of emblematic songs from throughout his career, song choices, that for many of us, confirm that Neil stands just as tall as his own musical idols.
“Homefires” came next. It’s a lesser-known but beautifully revealing song from 1974, and it opens with lyrics still relevant nearly 50 years later.
“I’m not the same man I was a while ago,
I’ve learned some new things, I hope that it shows”
It was followed by an even older Buffalo Springfield tune, “Burned,” from 1967. During the song’s intro, Neil said, “This was the first song of mine played on the radio in the USA …and here it is for you now.” Another charming Springfield tune, “On the Way Home,” followed as Neil continued his journey through the past.
Making his way to the pump organ perched on a riser above the stage, Neil revisited a Trans era (1982) but still unreleased tune, “If You Got Love.” Abandoning the organ for his beloved stand-up piano, Young then talked about David Briggs, his producer and confidante who died in 1995, while introducing “A Dream That Can Last,” from their final collaboration, the brilliant album, Sleeps With Angels (1994). Neil had never performed the song live in public prior to this tour, and including it as a tribute to his old friend felt like an appropriate and loving nod to another of Neil’s influences.
“Birds,” from Young’s 1970 breakthrough album After the Gold Rush, could have been construed as a “hit,” its lovely lyrical imagery and gorgeous melody contrasted against a bare-bones arrangement on the stand-up piano. “My Heart,” also from Sleeps With Angels kept him at the piano until the next song (a personal favorite), “Vampire Blues,” performed on Old Black, Neil’s customized 1953 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop. Taken from a lesser-known but pivotal 1974 album, On the Beach, the song is a jab at society’s continued reliance on fossil fuels.
“I’m a vampire, baby, suckin’ blood from the Earth…
sell ya twenty barrels worth”
The middle third of the show was given over to more tunes from Mirror Ball (“Throw Your Hatred Down”) and Sleeps With Angels (“Prime of Life”). Performing on the “Burnt Grand” (a Steinway built in the 1800s that had survived a fire, “it had no value, which I loved.”), “When I Hold You in My Arms” from 2002’s Are You Passionate saw Neil combining the piano’s deep rich sound with lead fills from Old Black and lyrics that revealed Neil’s wry sense of humor.
“Well, the older generation, they got something to say,
But they better say it fast, or get outta’ the way”
Reaching back again to the Buffalo Springfield days to finish out the show’s middle section, Neil surprised us with a lovely, innocent, and simple version of “I Am a Child.” He then climbed back up to the pump organ to perform a dark, gothic version of the Springfield classic, “Mr. Soul.” Pairing the two performances was a perfect reminder of how adept Neil is at using point/counterpoint to enhance the emotional impact of his songs.
Many fans know the falling out that Young and David Crosby (who died in January 2023) had over the last few years, but in his introduction to “Ohio,” Neil acknowledged the Croz’s influence and passion on writing, performing, and recording the song. The anger and desperation of the song’s central anti-violence message contrasted with Neil’s lovely, gracious gesture toward his former Crosby Stills Nash and Young bandmate and friend.
Watch CSNY perform “Ohio” live at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1974 via YouTube.
“Don’t Forget Love,” from Barn (2021) demonstrated Neil’s singing abilities, even at the top of his vocal register. His only Number One hit, “Heart of Gold” followed and to finish out the concert’s main set, led into the pastoral “Comes a Time” from the 1978 album of the same name.
Young has never been one to “promote” his latest album and this show was not an exception. The lone song performed from his newest release, 2022’s World Record, was “Love Earth,” a bouncy, happy little tune that urges the listener to care for the planet, a not unreasonable request and one that he’s asked throughout practically his entire career. Plus, it makes a wonderful audience sing-a-long tune!
Watch the official music video for “Love Earth” by Neil Young with Crazy Horse on YouTube:
Perhaps Neil’s most profound influence, and the reason he became a singer-songwriter, came from Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds.” He said in his 2014 book, Super Deluxe, that as a teen, “there was a little place with a jukebox, and I would play “Four Strong Winds” by Ian & Sylvia, over and over, learning all the words and singing along. I loved that song. I had the feeling that it was about my life, and the music touched me deeply.” Neil closed the show with “Four Strong Winds” and a promise.
“I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way”
Neil’s love of tradition and all things analog was evident in the way he’s surrounded himself with vintage musical instruments, saving them from obscurity or, worse, the landfill. His music itself is a bridge between artists who preceded him, people like Bert Jansch, Carl Perkins, and the King himself (Elvis Presley) to a younger generation of musicians who cite Young as a mentor and influence. In fact, Neil Young Archives, the website that houses and streams (among other features) thousands of hours of music and video to members aims to extend Young’s legacy well into the future.
He may prefer analog but Neil’s no technologyphobe, as demonstrated by his sprawling website, NYA, that ensures his music is disseminated in the highest quality possible. What I wrote about Neil back in 2019 still mostly holds true: “[He] is a musician driven by his craft, an artist with a seemingly bottomless well of creativity, and a man with an unquenchable desire to connect through music. His uncanny ability to see around the corner, to recognize where society and music are headed has prompted him to collaborate with bands as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Devo, and Pearl Jam. Today, Neil tours and records with Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real as he embraces a new generation of rockers, continuing to bolster his legacy and reach new audiences.”
Soon after he walked offstage to a thunderous standing ovation, he returned to play “Homegrown,” another happy, light-hearted little ditty about getting high that’s become a protest song against factory farming. This night, it was another massive sing-a-long or, as Neil put it, “a hootenanny” and left us with the hopeful feeling that guy will be singing for a long time still to come.
Neil Young’s setlist (from Sugar Mountain):
- I’m The Ocean
- On The Way Home
- If You Got Love
- A Dream That Can Last
- My Heart
- Vampire Blues
- Throw Your Hatred Down
- Prime Of Life
- When I Hold You In My Arms
- I Am A Child
- Mr. Soul
- Don’t Forget Love
- Heart Of Gold
- 18. Comes A Time
- Love Earth
- Four Strong Winds
The Coastal Tour ended on July 24, but Young has two more dates (so far) lined up for later this year. The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles, California, is marking its 50th anniversary on Sept. 20 with Young who, notably, played at the venue’s inaugural opening in 1973. He’s also scheduled to play Farm Aid 2023 on Sept. 23 at the Ruoff Music Center in Noblesville, Indiana. Be sure to check NYA for tour updates, new music, and video.