He walked onstage unannounced, plopped down his leather satchel and clapped at the audience.
“Everybody feelin’ good?” Neil Young asked the full house Saturday night at the Pantages Theatre.
“How are you feelin’?” shouted a fan.
“We’ll find out,” the rock god responded as he took a seat surrounded by six acoustic guitars, three pianos, a banjo, pump organ and an array of harmonicas.
We found Young in a melancholy yet often emotional mood. His voice seemed soft, his guitar plaintive and his song choice reflective. It may have been Mr. Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World at his mellowest. But he’s always been unpredictable, insisting — whether he’s strumming his acoustic guitar or cranking his electric to 11 with a band — that he plays for himself, not his audience.
Saturday was opening night of Young’s historic, unprecedented four-nights-in-four-different-theaters-in-six-days solo stand in Minneapolis. Oh, that’s a mouthful; let’s just call it Neilfest.
There’s no question that Neilfest rivals two other engagements as the most blow-your-mind multiple shows in Twin Cities rock history — Led Zeppelin rocking at the old Met Center and St. Paul Civic Center arenas on consecutive nights in 1977 and Prince dazzling at the now-shuttered Macy’s auditorium, Target Center arena and First Avenue club all on the same day, 7/7/07.
To kick off Neilfest, Young opted for the smallest Minneapolis theater first, the Pantages (with 1,014 seats), with the Orpheum, State and Northrop to follow. He’s no stranger to solo shows in Minneapolis, having packed the Guthrie (1971), the Orpheum (1992, 1999) and Northrop (2010).
On Saturday, the Rock Hall of Famer opened with the epic “Ambulance Blues,” a 1974 rambling commentary on his early days in Toronto, Richard Nixon’s lies and the importance of friends who can call you out when you need it.
The rest of the 18-song, 85-minute set was filled with reflections on various topics, including the classic “Old Man” (about Young, then 24, becoming just like the senior-citizen caretaker of his ranch), “Old King” (about his beloved, late dog) and “Olden Days,” a new, unreleased song about old friends who have faded away.
“I think we’re living way too fast,” the eternal hippie crooned in “Olden Days” at a white grand piano painted with splashes of raspberry and sunflower decades ago by his young daughter. “I’m searching out for my old friends. They say I’m living in the past.”
There certainly was an underlying sense of mortality running through the night, coming a mere three weeks after his ex-wife Pegi died of cancer.
In the other new, unreleased tune, “Green Is Blue,” Young lamented how poorly we’ve treated the environment. Despite the prettiness of his grand piano, the content felt like a report card on a lifetime of failure.
Social commentary has been as essential to Young’s oeuvre as romantic ballads. Late in Saturday’s set, he picked up an electric guitar, his big old Gretsch White Falcon, for a blistering if concise version of “Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s classic about the killings at Kent State University in 1970.
But that was his only electric number. Even “Rockin’ in the Free World” was rendered on acoustic, almost more as a benediction from an old man than as a rally-cry imperative from an unrepentantly rebellious rocker.
At 73, Young doesn’t deny his age, sporting white mutton-chop sideburns and stalactites of silver hair under his black fedora. And he doesn’t deny his past. He revisited his 1960s Rock Hall of Fame band, Buffalo Springfield with the high-voiced “On the Way Home” and a slow, gentle reading of “Broken Arrow,” the night’s highlight, complete with an ornate piano passage worthy of Jimmy Webb.
There were enough hits, including “Heart of Gold,” to please casual fans and enough deep tracks, such as “Journey Through the Past,” to satisfy the hard-core who paid as much as $300 for a ticket.
Young talked enough to seem personable, praising the Pantages a few times, thanking the crowd for whistling between songs, not during, and repeatedly joking that the concert was sponsored by water after he swigged from a liter bottle. But the evening seemed short, even with an opening low-key soulful acoustic set by rocker Benjamin Booker.
With a song catalog as deep as Bob Dylan’s, Young certainly can mix up the set lists for the three remaining nights of Neilfest. He’s an artist of many songs, moods and years — both behind and in front of him. Long may he run.
Look for recaps of the other three concerts at startribune.com and a wrap-up in Variety on Feb. 2.