Monday, April 18, 2011

Thoughts on Neil Young Live at Landmark Theater, Richmond, VA

I would consider myself somewhere between a casual and ardent Neil Young fan. To give you an example, this is the only time I'll use the word “Shakey” in this post! I have some of his albums – three of which (Harvest Moon, Zuma and Comes A Time) – I would place among my all time favorites. But a lot of his stuff is hit or miss. Even some of his classic work like the original Harvest album and On The Beach never made an impact...and a few of his most well known songs don't move me as much as select cuts from those aforementioned favorite albums. Still, I’ve always wanted to see Neil Young live. I used to imagine it being some great, cosmic event, so when the Landmark Theater show was announced I made it a point of getting tickets, even if they were the cheapest available balcony seats.

But then oddly in the days leading up to the show I didn’t pay it much thought. I guess I assumed the tour was going to be in support of Le Noise, an album which I don’t have a vested interest in. I was prepared to approach it as some musical theater where Neil putters around on stage playing his new material which nobody really wants to hear, then encoring with a few greatest hits for good measure. The reality was somewhere in between that and the cosmic parting of the universe I used to envision.

The tour opened in Durham a couple nights ago and Richmond was the 2nd show. Curiosity got the best of me and after a quick online search and I was able to find the Durham setlist, which consisted of more “songs you wanna hear” than I expected. This brightened my expectations going in.

We found our seats in the Landmark to be slightly worse than you would think. It’s an old theater that can quickly become cramped and claustrophobic for a sold out show, especially if the people around you are annoying, some of whom happened to be. While it’s true that there really isn’t a bad seat in the house, I discovered that there can be some not-so-good sight lines from the balcony, as in my specific seat! As the opening act Burt Jansch was playing I kept noticing an area on either side of the balcony where it looked like you were free to stand unobstructed. So after Jansch finished Laura and I went to check that spot out. This proved to be a great decision, as instead of sitting in a cramped area looking over heads, we had a clear view of the stage with lots of space and nobody around to bother you. I kept waiting for an usher to come over and tell us to leave but none ever did.

Soon after we got to this great spot the house lights went down and Neil came out strumming an acoustic guitar. I had already learned from the Durham show that he started the show by playing about four acoustic songs then moved on to electric, with some piano & organ stuff in between. The Richmond setlist proved to be EXACTLY the same as Durham. I guess a lot of performers do this, and I’m curious as to why? I suppose it gives you a sense of comfort to know ahead of time exactly what you’re going to play, but it seems like as the performer you’d get bored with it. Neil’s stage hands were Johnny-on-the-spot…they knew exactly what guitar to bring him next based on the song he was going to do. It was all worked out in advance. I guess he’ll do the same set the whole tour. It’s a shame considering the number of songs he must have at his disposal in a solo performance like this.

The perspective of observing a sold out show by a legendary performer in a beautiful sit down theater - but from a non-seated, un-official area that wasn’t your seat that you could get kicked out of at any moment - really heightened the experience for me. It was almost “fly on the wall” like. I was able to distance myself from the norm and just take it all in…judging it as an observer who didn’t feel compelled to applaud or yell or even actively be part of the audience... just watching from afar, performer and audience alike.

I would say the audience was fairly rapt and spellbound the whole show. There of course were the frequent shouts of “Thank You Neil!” and such between songs and the obligatory “I’m supposed to cheer for this lyric” type of hooting and whooping. But all in all it was a fairly reserved, baby-boomerish kinda crowd. Lots of denim for sure. To their credit the average Neil Young fan seems to have an outsider, “F-you” attitude which is admirable.

I haven’t said much about the show. Let’s see...the acoustic songs worked really well in a solo format, as to be expected. The electric songs rocked loudly and contained lots of feedback but would have probably benefited from a backing band. Still, without question Down By the River and Cortez The Killer sent chills down my spine. I’m fairly certain that most of the songs I didn’t recognize were off of Le Noise. Those Le Noise songs kinda struck me as “meh”. Hitchhiker was pretty damn good though. The classic numbers like Helpless and After the Gold Rush were great to hear live and doggone it if Neil didn’t look pretty darn eternal striking signature poses as he rocked out during the most electric parts of the night. At just over 90 minutes though it was kinda on the short-side and matter of fact. If he’s gonna focus on greatest hits that’s awesome, but how about changing up the set list from night to night or playing a little bit longer? LOTS of great songs were left on the table if you think about it. And quite frankly Walk With Me is not encore material.

All in all seeing Neil Young live at this point in my life was very cool. It was several rungs lower than the transcendent “aha moment” of harmonic convergence that I once thought it might be like. However, the reality of seeing him solo – just a guy and his guitar warts and all...a man who has meant so much to so many – really brought into focus the lasting and humbling power of music. I left fully satisfied with a greater respect for Shakey as an artist. (Oops I have now used that term a 2nd time!). It was worth it.

Neil Young solo acoustic/electric
2011-04-17, Landmark Theater, Richmond, Virginia

Set List:
My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)
Tell Me Why
You Never Call
Peaceful Valley Boulevard
Love And War
Down By The River
Sign Of Love
After The Gold Rush
I Believe In You
Cortez The Killer
Cinnamon Girl

(Encore) Walk With Me

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