Neil Young at Carnegie Hall: Live Review

Michael Loccisano, Getty Images
Neil Young performs at Carnegie Hall on January 6, 2014 in New York City.

The legendary singer-songwriter delivers classic performances of classic songs on night two of his Carnegie run

When tickets went on sale for Neil Young's four-night run at Carnegie Hall, there was no announcement regarding the format of the shows: would it be solo acoustic? Would there be a band or backing musicians? Ticket-holders got some of their answers at the first show of the stand on Monday night, which was entirely solo acoustic, accompanied by guitar and occasional keyboards, but the possibilities remained open for night two and onward.

There was a palpable air of anticipation and excitement inside the auditorium as audience members took their seats. Part of this was likely due to the elegant surroundings of the Isaac Stern Auditorium, which always invokes a feeling that you are about to see something special.

The stage was crowded: set up with no less than six acoustic guitars (at least one of which belonged to Steven Stills and had a bullet hole, and another which was a "Deja Vu"-era gift from Stills) and a banjo, a cigar store Indian, a grand piano (atop which was perched a Univox Stringman keyboard), a stand-up piano, a vintage pump organ and a large Native American bird. Throughout the evening, Young would wander from instrument to instrument, playing a random tune on his harmonica for some of the longer jaunts, like walking back to the pump organ, or telling stories to the audience.

From Hank to Hendrix

Night two's setlist would, sadly, be identical to night one's, focusing on his early material (with a couple of exceptions) shattering any hopes of a venture to a different era of Young's catalog. But that was a minor disappointment compared to the performance and execution of the material, which was authoritative yet still warm and emotional. These were classic performances of classic songs.

Neil's voice has changed with the years but still maintains its essential power, which was blissfully well-served by the famous Carnegie Hall acoustics. You wouldn't think one man and a banjo could fill that cavernous space, but Young had no problem with doing so throughout the entire set. Unlike the audience the previous evening, which by all reports had to be admonished for unnecessary boisterousness, tonight the crowd was content to sit and listen. That might sound like a bad thing for a rock and roll show, but the quiet wasn't detached; it was engaged and participatory, an audience sitting on the edge of their seat and engulfed in the performance. (Don't worry, there were still plenty of "I LOVE YOU, NEIL" yelps throughout the show, and the guys who invoked Neil's ire on night one by yelling for "Don't Be Denied" did get at least one bellow in.)

You expect Neil Young to play great guitar, but tonight many of the best moments were on keyboards. "Are You Ready For The Country" was one of those moments: performed on the stand-up piano, it has a loose, honky-tonk feel, but that deliberately casual style hid the precision that was driving the performance. The keyboards were where Neil could experiment a little bit, offering an interesting, 80's-tinged synthesizer accompaniment to the grand piano for "A Man Needs A Maid" and the quasi-goth pump organ rendition of "Mr. Soul."

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There were specific stories and dedications: "On The Way Home" went out to David Geffen, while Steven Stills (and the guitars he gifted to Young) was mentioned several times. The late folk singer Phil Ochs, who apparently wore a gold lame suit when he appeared at Carnegie Hall, was paid tribute to with a delicate cover of "Changes," one of Ochs' best-known songs, prefaced by a brief remembrance. (Young also had a few cryptically critical words to say about "that new movie about a folksinger," likely referencing the Coen Brothers'  "Inside Llewyn Davis.") The other specific dedication of the evening went out to influential folk musician and acoustic guitar virtuoso Bert Jansch, which Young acknowledged as a very specific and personal influence, before playing a cover of Jansch' "Needle of Death."

But the highlight of the evening was the sheer strength of the performances of the classic material. Young played versions of songs like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," "Ohio," "Old Man," "After the Gold Rush" and "Comes A Time" as powerfully and cleanly as you've ever heard him play those songs. Performances of 30 or 40-year old songs are rarely so breathtaking and compelling. The gravitas of the venue was a likely contributor to that feeling, but a room can't carry an entire performance. The credit for that goes entirely to Neil Young, who, at age 68, still has an abundance of grit and fortitude. These songs are giants, and at Carnegie Hall, they were performed as such.

Young has two more nights at Carnegie Hall (Thursday, Jan. 9 and Friday, Jan. 10). He then heads to Canada to perform four concerts along with special guest Diana Krall. The Canadian dates have been dubbed the "Honour the Treaties" shows, as 100% of the proceeds from these concerts will go to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations legal defense fund. 

Setlist:
1. From Hank To Hendrix
2. On The Way Home
3. Only Love Can Break Your Heart
4. Love In Mind
5. Mellow My Mind
6. Are You Ready For The Country?
7. Someday
8. Changes
9. Harvest
10. Old Man

--Intermission--

11. Goin' Back
12. A Man Needs A Maid
13. Ohio
14. Southern Man
15. Mr. Soul
16. Needle of Death
17. The Needle And The Damage Done
18. Harvest Moon
19. Flying On The Ground Is Wrong
20. After The Gold Rush
21. Heart Of Gold

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22. Comes A Time
23. Long May You Run