Stately and scraggly, taking the stage at Massey like some guitar-playing Jacob Marley.
J. Hoberman, film critic for the Village Voice, summed up Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin as “the most eccentric of mainstream filmmakers (or the most accessible of avant-gardists).” It’s a handy turn of phrase that rings true as it is perfectly pithy, and captures the in-between status of Maddin and his work. It can also be, with slight rejigging, applied rather usefully to another slightly off-kilter Canadian artist (and erstwhile Winnipegger), Neil Young. Because Young’s work, even the cottage-rock classics of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, has always existed in a fuzzy intermediary state. At the risk of ripping off Hoberman, Neil Young may well be the most mainstream of outsider artists.
Like a lot of outsider musicians, Young projects that sense of frailty that emboldens audience members at concerts to shout out, “I LOVE YOU NEIL!” not just because they want to express enthusiasm for his music (or, maybe, because they actually love him love him), but because something about him makes them think that he actually needs the encouragement. In his nearly 50 years as a musician, Young’s persona has shifted and flipped around so many times—from shy-seeming singer-songwriter to cokey grunge-rocker, to weird-wacko-whoknowswhat who directed a little-seen movie called Human Highway (starring Devo and Dennis Hopper), to veteran environmentalist, humanitarian, and certified (twice, in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame) rock sage.
With age comes dignity. And punctuality. Neil takes the stage right on time. Not like those newfangled rock ‘n’ rollers with their flippant disregard for other people’s time.
There’s a lot of mystery and enigma involved when Neil Young plays a solo set at Massey Hall, like he did last night and the night before—because Massey is where he famously performed 40 years ago after returning home from a sojourn south to the States, adopting the role of Canada’s prodigal son returned. In that 1971 show, Young worked through a mess of new material that would end up largely comprising his seminal 1972 album, Harvest. Since then, Massey’s always seemed like a check-in point for Young, a weigh station where Toronto fans new and old can mark his progress, belt out requests (most of which go unheeded), and tell Neil just how much they love him. And of course all this excitement, electricity, and anxiety gets compounded howevermany-fold now that Young is 65, and many of his classics have passed through the narrows of nostalgia and emerged as full-on laments. It’s hard to regard last night’s acoustic opener, “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” as anything but an actual dirge for rock music, lodged not as prophecy but as matter-of-fact. And the amended lyrics to “After the Gold Rush” (“Look at mother nature on the run in the twenty-first century”) similarly spoke for themselves.
What most surprised (and impressed) about Young’s shambling one-man show wasn’t how well his classics hold up—even if their tenor seems to have transmuted almost entirely (or, at least, deepened in their poignancy and elegiac relevance)—but how well his new material comes off live. Though last year’s Daniel Lanois–produced Le Noise disappointed some (though certainly not the Juno committee, which crowned it Adult Alternative Album of the Year, among other things), the folk-fuzz numbers proved some of the most arresting.
The cigar store Indian, in conjunction with all the parched, Cormac McCarthyian lyrics of Young’s latest album (and the cowboy-ish hat) made it feel like some ancient antagonism was playing out on stage.
There’s sometimes a sense of strained patience whenever any artist plays new tunes. And, sure as anything, the muted sing-alongs and eruptive applause-of-recognition that accompanied the opening chords of “Helpless” or “Tell Me Why” died out considerably when Young broke into “Hitchhiker” or encore opener “Walk With Me.” But all the feedback loop and hum echoing off the theatre’s walls and hanging in the air was, beyond sounding great, almost hypnotic. Ditto watching Young shuffle around the stage, contemplating a guitar or pedal organ before taking a seat at his grand piano, as if the decision about which to play was being divined by some sonic currents rumbling underneath. And cleverly lit by the film crew (quarterbacked by Jonathan Demme) there to capture Young’s performance, last night’s Massey concert struck that too-rare balance between being eerie and expressionistic and still somehow honest.
In a lot of ways, Neil Young at 65 seems like the definitive Neil Young. Even for those who came of age with him, he’s always had the halfway-outsider status of some old trooper. And seeing Young alone, working through a setlist that seemed highly deliberate (though certainly unbalanced, especially for those who came to hear the hits) and taking his sweet time swapping out guitars (including his standby Les Paul Old Black) and harmonica rigs seems fitting. True to his character, you could say. Certainly more so than seeing him hammer through the chorus of “Rockin’ in the Free World” ca. 2008 while doddering frat-looking dudes pumped their overpriced beers in the air in a strange show of respect, spilling the stuff all over the sticky floors of the Air Canada Centre (been there).
Other highlights: An as-yet unreleased song called “Leia,” a beautiful little lullaby to “the little people” performed on upright piano; an absolutely show-stopping rendition of “Cortez the Killer,” one of those long songs that can never be long enough; Jonathan Demme seeming like a really genuinely nice guy.
Photos by Nancy Paiva/Torontoist.