Neil Young is restless. That's a good thing. Especially at age 64.
While his fans may flock to his sold-out concerts for nostalgia, he's there for the now and the new. On Thursday night at Northrop Auditorium, one-third of his repertoire was drawn from "Twisted Road," a new album expected this fall. And his pot-stained oldies -- two from the 1960s, eight from the '70s, including two Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young chestnuts -- were mostly reimagined because this was a solo show, just that familiar high lonesome voice, accompanied by acoustic and electric guitar, piano and pump organ and occasional harmonica.
Mixing retrospective and reimagination with intimacy and urgency made for a special evening, a very special evening. But then, Young always tries to make his concerts special -- whether theatrical arena spectacles or one-man theater shows. In 1992 at the Orpheum, he offered a solo acoustic performance. In 1999, he returned there, surrounded by a semi-circle of stringed instruments and pianos. At Northrop, he sat on a stool, with an acoustic guitar to either side of him and a glass of water in which to dip his harmonica. Later, roadies brought out electric guitars -- Old Black, his 1953 Les Paul and a Gretsch White Falcon (from his days with Buffalo Springfield) -- and he moved around to upright and baby grand pianos as well as to the "After the Gold Rush" pump organ.
While Young may have been restless enough to introduce new material from "Twisted Road" (which he made with producer Daniel Lanois) long before its time, he delivered those tunes and his classics with a relaxed tone and a gentle grace. "Rumblin'," a "Twisted Road" tirade about environmental concerns, was a seething rocker ready to explode but didn't. Similarly, during the ensuing 1975 nugget "Cortez the Killer," you could sense the thunder inside Young's guitar wanting to be unleashed. But it never happened.
Whether he was the scathing social commentator or the hopelessly sentimental lovebird, Young sang with a pronounced sweetness on Thursday. His voice was less warbly and whiney than in the past. His acoustic guitar had a new sound for his new tunes, thanks to an electric pickup that elevated the bass notes while he strummed flamenco and spaghetti Western passages. But his words had many of the same old messages, about the environment, love within families and, of course, war.
"I sang for justice and hit a bad chord," he sang in the new "Love and War." "But I'm still trying to sing about love and war."
He introduced the piano ditty "Leia" as a song for the little tots who aren't here tonight. It was the only time he spoke, other than saying "thank you" and dedicating the 1972 classic "Old Man" to Ben Keith, his longtime pedal steel guitarist who died this week. "Leia," an ode to a granddaughter, made the perfect bookend to "Old Man," a reflection on his dad and fatherhood. The new and the old, restless and relaxed, wistful and wonderful.
For a set list, go to www.startribune.com/artcetera. Jon Bream • 612-673-1719
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