Take Two: Neil Young at the Hippodrome Theater April 27
Earlier today Sam Sessa reviewed Neil Young's show at the Hippodrome. Now, we have a review from reporter Nick Madigan, who first saw Young in concert in the 70s. Neil Young performs again Thursday night at the Hippodrome.
Neil Young is determined to prove he can do it alone.
Calmly strolling the stage of Baltimore's Hippodrome as though it were his living room, taking his time to decide what to play next from his vast repertoire and an array of guitars and pianos -- even a pump organ -- Young seemed on Wednesday night to be living his performer's ideal, a musician unencumbered by other musicians, true only to his muse and the vagaries of spontaneous choice.
At 65 years old, and with a five-decade career still going strong, Young long ago earned the right to do whatever he likes. Sometimes, the results are uneven, even startlingly so.
Audiences occasionally find themselves grasping for a thread of his early inspirations, the prodigious talent that produced such seminal anthems as "Heart of Gold," "Needle and the Damage Done" and "Southern Man," songs that he'll deliver if and when he wishes.
At the Hippo, for the first gig of a two-night stand, some members of the audience were visibly unmoved by Young's persistent toying with a pair of stunningly loud guitars, a Gretsch White Falcon and a black Gibson Les Paul, thudding his way through songs from his latest album, appropriately titled "Le Noise."
For all his renown as a composer of gentle sensibilities, Young's rock-and-roll has the force of a Sherman tank, all guns firing.
But Young, always self-effacing and painstakingly honest, has never pandered to the desires of anyone, whether acolytes or recording executives, and retains a bemused tolerance for the excesses of the entertainment world and the pressures it brings to others.
He proved that early in his career by walking out on Crosby, Stills and Nash just as they were firmly establishing themselves as a super-group, and has picked up and dropped numerous other musicians (Pearl Jam, for instance) along the way. Only Crazy Horse, the band Young first toured with in 1969, has retained his loyalty, and then only sporadically.
"Where's the Horse?" someone in the Hippodrome crowd shouted out. Young ignored him, just as he did all those who begged for specific pearls from his inventory, although that's not to say he didn't come up with some. "Tell Me Why," "Helpless," "Down by the River," "After the Gold Rush" and "Ohio" all got an airing, as did "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)," his powerful affirmation of rock's staying power and, by extension, his own.
Young's best music, in my opinion, is unvarnished by electronic affectation. He is at his most compelling when he sits alone with guitar or piano, ruminating in melody about love, legends and the compromises of life -- "...is it hard to make arrangements with yourself?"
The famously wide range of his voice, a tenor with both falsetto and chest tones, appears only mildly affected by the years, scratchy at the edges but haunting as ever. His vocal chords have experienced none of the damage of those of Bob Dylan, the only troubadour of the 60's to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Young and both songwriter and singer.
In that context, Young's rendition of "Love and War" on Wednesday night was a perfect ode to the protest ethos by which he, Dylan, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez and others were defined. In Young's performance, there was no doubting the pain inherent in the lyrics:
I've seen a lot of young men go to war
And leave a lot of young brides waiting
I've watched them try to explain it to their kids
And seen a lot of them failing
They tried to tell them and they tried to explain
Why daddy won't ever come home again.
In keeping with the theme of lost innocence, Young then sat at an upright piano for “Leia,” a ditty about kids' playfulness that he introduced by saying, "This is a song for all the little people. Too little to be here tonight. They couldn't come. They're just too small."
The sweetly infantile tune was jarringly juxtaposed with songs like "Cortez the Killer" and "Cinnamon Girl," both full of metallic eruptions. But in the latter, especially, Young filled the hall with so much sound, rhythm and nerve that for a moment it seemed as if Crazy Horse was right behind him, hammering away.
With that, Young proved he didn't need a band. All he needed was his guitar, his voice and the urging of his soul.
Nick Madigan is a staff reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He last reviewed for the blog Elton John at 1st Mariner Arena.
Photo: Neil Young at the Hippodrome Wednesday night (Doug Kasputin/Special to the Baltimore Sun)