Neil Young at the Hippodrome Theater April 27
Neil Young kicked-off a two-night residency at the Hippodrome Theater Wednesday night. At this point in his career, he has several generations of fans. For Midnight Sun alum Sam Sessa, who has been listening to him since he can remember, Tuesday's show was a first. Later today, reporter Nick Madigan, who's been listening to Young since the 70s, will review the show from a seasoned fan's perspective.
In his long and storied career, Neil Young has been many things: Folk rock pioneer, artful singer/songwriter, godfather of grunge.
Few musicians have stayed as relevant as long as Young. Even now, when many of his peers have settled into their umpteenth Greatest Hits tour, Young refuses to give people exactly what they want to hear. He'd rather give them what he wants them to hear. That was the case at the Hippodrome Wednesday night, where Young performed solo on acoustic and electric guitar.
Many audience members were expecting a hit parade or an all-request hour, shouting suggestions at Young, who brushed them off. While he did play a handful of his signature pieces, such as "Ohio," "Helpless" and an excellent "Cortez the Killer," much of Young's set was music from his latest album, "Le Noise" and other newer songs.
Young's dimly lit set, with its wooden Indian and hodgepodge of instruments, recalled a rustic saloon. Spotlights cast four rectangular panels on the dark curtain behind him, giving the impression of a church's stained glass windows at twilight.
When Young emerged, wearing jeans, a black T-shirt, white jacket and light tan fedora, the crowd greeted him with a standing ovation. Wasting no time, he fired right into a trio of hits: "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," the poignant "Tell Me Why" and a subtle, elegant version of "Helpless."
From there, it was on to more obscure material. "You Never Call" had some comical ruminations on mortality ("You're on vacation / We're working / You're in heaven / I'm working"). That song, like other more recent material, was swathed in echo and reverb and at times, the low end had too much bass, which muddied the mix.
Young cast off a couple brief, lyrical solos in "Love and War," from last year's "Le Noise." Never a flashy player, Young is a masterful rhythm guitarist who can really work on a chord.
While his face is softer and his mid-section a bit rounder, the 65-year-old Young doesn't look all that different than he did 25 years ago. Time has sapped him of his once-shrill high end, though he still has his soft singing voice. There were moments when Young would go up for a note that wouldn't be there, as he did with the chorus in "Down by the River," but it only made the narrator -- a man who murders his woman -- seem more deranged.
A slower, more methodical "Ohio" set spines tingling; the words speak to one generation but the song's mix of anger and repulse is universal. Young could be singing in another language and you'd still understand him.
Young sat at an upright piano for the nursery rhyme-like "Leia," switched to a pump organ for "After the Gold Rush" and offered a gorgeous rendition of "I Believe in You" at a baby grand piano.
The show's high point came near the end, when Young tore into "Cortez the Killer," slapping his guitar strings and nailing the whammy bar. As the song's last chord rang out, Young plucked a pick from his mike stand and cracked into "Cinnamon Girl." Together, the two songs were tremendous.
Between songs, the crowd called for "Harvest Moon," "Old Man," and much of Young's well-known music. Young just shrugged, and, at one point, said "sticks and stones."
Can you blame him? With his long list of hits, Young could easily sell out the much larger Pier Six Pavilion. Instead, he played a more intimate, ornate theater with great acoustics. And while the set list was varied, the show was all the more interesting for it.
Photo: Neil Young at the Hippodrome Wednesday night (Doug Kasputin/Special to the Baltimore Sun)