By David Courtright
As the dawn of the Internet and subsequent decline of major label music is reshaping how music is made, understood and distributed, it could strike one as sadly ironic to hear an old rocker sing, “My, my, hey, hey/Rock and roll is here to stay.” In his opening song, “My, My, Hey, Hey (Into the Black),” Neil Young, still triumphant at 64, his voice still a clear bell of want and longing, proclaimed that to a hushed audience at the Fox Theatre last Saturday. With its Moorish architecture and artificial night sky, complete with twinkling stars and drifting clouds projected across the ceiling, The Fabulous Fox Theatre exudes magic. It feels like a time warp. Out of the humid early summer air, suddenly you’ve stumbled into a tent caravan in 16th century Arabia. And Neil Young is there.
Of course Neil Young could play in the parking lot of Wal-Mart and it would devastate you, but the feeling the Fox gives, that ethereal presence of being inside living history, was a perfect compliment to Young’s pristine ballads and blazing guitar work. Young’s place in popular music is often held up next to Bob Dylan, but unlike Dylan, Young keeps his songs intact as they were written. When he plays “Tell Me Why,” which was his second selection of the evening, it sounds more or less exactly the way it does on After the Gold Rush. His patient whine, clear and sweet, filled the Fox to a nearly full audience. Hearing the crowd swell and sing along to the refrain of “Helpless,” I was at once overcome by the gravity of the situation. A living legend, one of my biggest idols and influences, lit by a single spotlight far below me.
He played a good mix of old favorites and new numbers from a set list he’s been more or less repeating on this tour. “Who’ll be the one to lead this world?/Who’ll be the beacon in the night?”he asked in “Peaceful Valley.” He also played a sweet little ballad called “Leia,” about a granddaughter, which he introduced by saying, “This is just a little thing.” He had relatively small interaction with the crowd, but with his slow glide across the stage, and the way he would sporadically stop and raise an arm or two to the crowd to roaring applause, he commanded the place.
Though it came only halfway through the performance, the climax for me was “After the Gold Rush,” which he played on the pump organ. Why he didn’t play it on the Fox’s organ, which is the second largest theater organ in the country, I don’t know. But he took a song that already pleads with its quiet desire, and made it even more grandiose, even more breathtaking. “Cortez the Killer,” another classic, burned through the still air of the theater. After so many years, he has become a true master of balance and composition, flawlessly playing quiet ballads on his acoustic, or seething riffs on his black Les Paul. He is indeed a true master of his craft. My only complaint is that I wasn’t closer. But honestly, who has $345 to sit in the orchestra pit? I sure wish I did.