By Mark Guarino
The Chicago Theatre became a facsimile of Neil Young’s legendary barn in Northern California, or at least a mythologized version of that workspace. Large canvases propped on easels, announcing the songs in paint. Old guitars huddled, two pianos stood, a line of harmonicas were available for the choosing. A totem of an Indian held a prayer candle and pirate flag fluttered above the drums.
In the middle of the clutter sat Young, the eye middling a snapshot that portrayed the workmanlike commitment that has produced the eccentric but deeply rich turns and roundabouts of a 40-year career.
Young, who played the first of two shows Monday, also celebrated his birthday. He turned 62 but unlike the inclinations of many of his peers, did not acknowledge the date or reward his audience with sustained looks in the past. He was there with a requisite new album (“Chrome Dreams II”) but moreso he wanted to play songs in a variety of styles with not much in common except the singer singing them.
A hidden announcer warned the crowd that the 90-minute show — one solo acoustic, the other with a band — would have a predetermined setlist and Young didn’t appreciate cell phone chirps or shouted requests. “Show a bit of respect by keeping comments to yourself,” the voice warned. Considering that it’s no secret that Young traditionally draws a meathead contingent, the warning was apt. Besides birthday wishes, the show’s first half remained vigilantly quiet.
There, he traded off between guitars, a banjo and the pianos for songs that were mostly relished relics from his past career — “Ambulance Blues,” “A Man Needs a Maid,” “Sad Movies,” “Love is a Rose.” Young sang, almost whispering some of them, while turning in his seat, his legs bobbing. Despite being labeled the “godfather of grunge,” Young’s quieter side has always revealed the sadness that is universal in his songwriting. Several times the solitude he summoned chilled. After “Mellow My Mind,” even he was struck: “I’ve played here a long time ago,” he said. “Tonight’s the night.”
After a 20-minute intermission, Young returned with three long-time side players: bassist Rick Rosas, Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina and multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith. A member of the road crew switched out canvases that announced song titles, leaving the band to their own surprises. After an introductory run of rock stompers (“The Loner,” “Everyone Knows This is Nowhere”), the show settled into country soul, thanks to backing vocals from wife Pegi Young (who opened the show with her own set) and Keith’s interchangeable textures on guitar and organ.
The new songs turned up here, particularly “Dirty Old Man” where Young played solos that mimicked the sound of scratches on a turntable, and “Spirit Road” a song that extended into a jam of long, sustained notes, twisted into distortion. The vigor was high and so was the volume.