Seventy-nine songs, four concerts and one Neil Young. He is singular — in his quirkiness, playfulness, rebelliousness, voice and, most important, his songwriting.
About 8,500 concertgoers (or fewer if you leave out the many multi-night repeaters) experienced Neilfest, which ended Thursday at Northrop with the fourth show in four different Minneapolis theaters over six nights.
We don’t usually double up on concerts — especially four! — but given the scarcity of other shows this past week and our genuine appreciation, it paid having two critics from different Young-loving generations tackle the highlights, lowlights and significance of these solo acoustic performances.
JB: Culture-wise, it was unquestionably historic in its ambition, scope and, of course, weather. For this boomer, it was the coolest — no pun intended — multi-show music gig since Prince’s triple-header at the old Macy’s auditorium, Target Center and First Avenue on 7/7/07 but the First Ave show was cut short by curfew. So maybe this run tops it, even though I yearned for more electric guitar fireworks. Still, there was an intimacy and emotionalism not experienced at Neil’s performances with one of his bands. By the way, it was Neil’s idea for this unprecedented run, and he researched the theaters.
CR: Like Prince, it takes a rare, multifaceted artist with a deep discography to make a run like this truly interesting. He definitely has the songs to pull it off. I couldn’t believe that even by the final show at Northrop he was still pulling out classic tunes he had yet to play this week, including “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Alabama.”
Ranking the four shows
JB: 1) Orpheum for its playfulness, freewheeling pace and every concertgoer getting to sing backup on a new song. 2) Northrop. Best and most expansive guitar work and some surprise songs. 3) State. Best set list and most obnoxiously vocal yahoos in the audience. 4) Pantages. Very melancholy and emotional but too short.
CR: I had to miss the Orpheum show, so I’d rate the State show first, primarily for the set list but also because it seemed the most forceful and fierce. By contrast, the Pantages set seemed very timid.
JB: Northrop with the biggest stage, the biggest crowd (2,700) but most important, the warmth and resonance of the acoustics.
CR: Northrop did sound great, but the vibe there since its fancy makeover feels a little stiff for rock shows. The State is where Neil himself commented, “Isn’t this beautiful? With all these new buildings, it’s great this is still here.”
Most played song(s)
“Heart of Gold,” “Old King,” “Thrasher,” “Green Is Blue” and “Tumbleweed” were performed every night.
Best set list
JB: The State with such beloved gems as “Cinnamon Girl,” “Southern Man,” “Down by the River,” “Are You Ready for the Country” and “From Hank to Hendrix,” none of which were heard on other nights.
Most unexpected song
CR: According to the (many) Neilheads in town, the 1969 nugget “Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)” hadn’t been played in decades, but it sounded lovely and ageless at the State and Northrop. The one that really surprised me, though, was fan-requested “F--kin’ Up.” If ever there was a Young song meant to only be played at top volume with a full-tilt band like Crazy Horse (or Pearl Jam) it’s that one, but he pulled it off surprisingly well unplugged — with the audience’s vital help on backup vocals, that is.
JB: He just doesn’t stop creating. The unrecorded “Green Is Blue” and “Olden Days” have been showing up at his recent solo shows. Two other untitled tunes — one about love being as eternal as an endless train and the other a topical piece asserting that the truth kills — also were introduced.
JB: When Young was six lines into the piano song “Olden Days” at the State, some bozo in the balcony screamed “Whew!” Young aborted the song, stood up, threw both of his arms in the air and cynically shouted “Whew! Whew!” He muttered something about being adaptable and picked up a guitar to start another song. Adaptable? No, embarrassing.
Most Minneapolis moment
JB: At the State, he mentioned that when he lived in Winnipeg as a teen, a band from there, the Guess Who, went to Minneapolis to record. Said Neil: “I was thinking to myself, someday I’m going to go down to Minneapolis.”
CR: I heard someone spotted him shopping at the Target store downtown. If he was looking for gloves or long underwear, that’s as Minnesotan as it gets.
Most mysterious Neil moment
JB: Every night, he came onstage with a weathered leather satchel in his hand and he exited each night clutching it. He never opened it. Necessity or affectation? Only Neil knows for sure.
CR: He was at his most oblique when he introduced “Pocahontas” at Northrop. “I learned a lot today about one of the people in this song,” he said. “Not sure what to make of it. We take a lot of things from a lot of people and turn them into bad things.” Unless there’s some new revelation about Marlon Brando, it was presumably a reference to travesties against American Indians, but only he knows.
Best Neil gear nugget
JB: Pieced together from comments he made at two shows, the history of his black grand piano was typically quirky Neil: He bought the 9 foot Steinway in 1970 in Oakland for $1,500 and realized later that the piano bottom had been scorched in a fire.CR: He introduced “Heart of Gold” on the last night by pointing out he was playing the same guitar he used for recording and probably writing it back in 1972; but that’s after he first picked up another guitar by accident and switched it out.
Most emotional performance
CR: I kept looking for flashes of mourning after the Jan. 1 death of his ex-wife, Pegi Young, whose spirit permeates a lot of the music, but he understandably seemed to be keeping those feelings close to the vest. Instead, the one song that did sound especially naked and wounded was “Green Is Blue,” a strong, elegant new one that mourns the destruction of our planet.
JB: I felt that Pegi pang when he sang “From Hank to Hendrix” — “Can we get it together/ Can we still walk side by side/ Can we make it last.”
Lyric with the biggest response
JB: “I’ve still got a long way to go” in “Old King” received a mid-song cheer at every show.
CR: The people who picked up on it cheered for the apparent “Make America Great Again”-inspired line in the ornery new song he played only at Northrop: “I don’t want to be great again / The first time was good enough.”
Favorite response to fan shout-outs
JB: At Northrop, a fan requested the hit “Old Man.” “What do you mean?” retorted Young as he flexed his arms.
CR: I appreciated his pushback at the State, but really the best thing he did was just ignore the annoying jerks who don’t know there are different rules for a sit-down acoustic set vs. a rock show. I did think it classic Old-Man Neil, though, when one fan good-naturedly yelled, “Take your time!” as he fiddled with his gear, and he wryly replied, “Oh, I am.” This whole run was about him taking his time, and it sure was sweet.