First, the setlist: 1. My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)
2. Tell Me Why
4. You Never Call
5. Peaceful Valley Boulevard
6. Love and War
7. Down by the river
10. Sign of Love
12. After the Gold Rush
13. I Believe in You
15. Cortez the Killer
16. Cinnamon Girl
Encore Break, then
17. Walk with Me
In many ways, this was a great show, yet in some a disappointing one, and I’m writing about it because it was kind of an archetypal show in both ways, as well as the fact that it was a Neil Young at Massey Hall show, which required me to spend about five times what I usually spend for a concert ticket.
There was no band, which I didn’t expect, which robbed some of the electric guitar numbers, especially “Down by the river,” of their tension and instead rendered them lumbering repetitions of reach-for-the-rafters volume during the choruses quickly followed by tasteful strumming during the verses. Thus, the nine-minute masterpiece on record became a five-minute good song with no Crazy Horse interplay to elevate it to awesome. However, of the electric numbers, “Ohio” and “Cinnamon Girl” really stood out and have stayed in my mind since because of the inescapable greatness of the riffs at their respective cores and the pointed contrast of such riffs to the sublime beauty of Young’s non-electric work, either on acoustic guitar or piano.
Thus, the highlights of the show were mostly the non-rocking songs, as Neil’s voice remains as honeyed as ever and his age has turned him into, thankfully, not quite a sentimentalist, but nevertheless a more human singer. Thus, his playing “I Believe in You” on the piano near the end of the show was a gorgeous moment, and the as-yet-unrecorded “Leia” a very sweet ballad from a proud grandpa. I’ve always loved Neil’s rocker side a lot more than his acoustic/ piano side, mostly because at heart my music tastes start and end with electric guitar solos, and also because as beautiful as most of the songs on After the Gold Rush and Harvest are, they will never be as beautiful as the vulnerable songs on Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach, the two albums which I believe are the most successful at bridging the two main Neil personalities. At Massey, “After the Gold Rush,” “Tell Me Why,” and “Helpless” attained a potency that the recorded versions have never had because they reminded one of the passing of time and the kind of vulnerability that Neil showed after the deaths of Danny Whitten, Crazy Horse’s lead guitarist, in 1972, and roadie Bruce Berry the next year, each of heroin overdoses.
The next night I saw Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings at the Sound Academy, and that turned out to be one of the top ten concerts I have ever seen. This reminded me of the difficult task that Neil Young had to perform for me to think of his show as one of the best I’d ever seen. I came into the show with thankfully few opinions about what I wanted him to play; merely “Down by the River” and I was waiting to be surprised by a tender b-side such as “Mellow my mind” or “For the turnstiles,” the latter which couldn’t have happened anyway because there wasn’t anyone to play accompanying dobro to his banjo. However, because it’s Neil Young and I own five of his studio albums and one of his live ones and have listened to at least three more, regardless of what songs he played and at what length, I wanted him to play them a certain way. Hence, an artist of Neil Young’s stature and longevity has to, for me, play the songs in an instantly-remembered way and yet still has to give them a freshness that makes them “live,” both in the concert-music and verb versions of the word, which is hard for such artists to do because many of the songs they play are so old that they can’t be freshened even with different arrangements or so adored that new arrangements overwhelm the qualities the listener originally adored the songs for. The latter problem I had run into before on the second time I saw Bob Dylan live, during which the fact that he was touring for his 2006 Modern Times record led him to perform his old songs in this repetitively slow blues groove so they could sound like the songs on his then-new record, which made every song sound the same and none memorable.
While I have seen incredible shows by legends in the past, namely Bob Dylan the first time I saw him in the summer of 2002 as well as Eric Clapton in the summer of 2008, both at the Molson Amphitheatre, I think both of those shows were great partly because I sat on the lawn both times and thus spent below $60 on the tix, while seeing Dylan at the ACC, U2 at the same venue, and Young at Massey brought the prices and thus the expectations up (not that they wouldn’t be high at the Amphitheatre shows) to a level that the shows themselves probably could never reach. And that gets me, after travelling on the long road (hope you didn’t mind it too much), to asking the questions I wanted to ask you readers, which were the main reason for writing this entry: How do you feel about spending over $60 for a single ticket to a concert? How often have you done it, and, most importantly, how have you felt after seeing the show(s)? Disappointed? Surprised? Mind-blown? Please comment.