By MARK GUARINO
Daily Herald Music Critic
In his 30 odd years of making music, Neil Young has been many things: a garage rock warrior, a cosmic folk rock dreamer, a crusading activist, and a fierce deterrent to the status quo, making wide-ranging albums, from rockabilly one year to blinding guitar distortion another.
His stop at the New World Music Theatre Saturday, Young had traces of all his past roles, yet this time, it was the setting that was different.
He was neither joined by Crazy Horse, his noise rock outfit of almost 30 years, nor Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Woodstock era harmony trio he helped resurrect earlier this year. There was also not one member of a ’90s rock band moping around, a significant fact considering Young has shared much stage time with Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth, Beck and Phish in the past few years.
Instead, Young surrounded himself with old friends: a six-piece band filled with family members and lifelong collaborators. The music felt snug and well worn as you’d expect from a back porch reunion. Defying, and at times even confusing, his core audience which waited for familiar classic rock nuggets like “Southern Man” or “Cinnamon Girl,” Young went back to dust off songs that have not made his setlists in years: “Motorcycle Mama,” “Powderfinger,” and “Words (Between the Lines of Age).”
Many of the songs reflected his quieter albums, particularly “Harvest Moon” from 1992 and its companion piece this year, “Silver & Gold.” Songs like “Peace of Mind” and “From Hank to Hendrix” sounded more like meditations on the complexities of lifelong love and for good reason: singing with him were his wife Pegi and sister Astrid, who provided golden harmonies all night.
With them, Young’s band of grizzled but legendary studio veterans gave an understated, but deft, touch to the songs. Drummer Jim Keltner, organist Spooner Oldham, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and steel guitarist Ben Keith have all recorded with Young many times (Keith on his classic “Harvest” album from 1972), and the collaboration had the familiar ease of bunch of country old-timers. Sitting at a piano with an impromptu version of “Tonight’s the Night,” Young, in straw hat and sandals, directed the band with only a hand, letting the noirish song fade away then crash hard.
The graceful touch was smashed at the encore, when Young gave into the crowd’s Crazy Horse needs by playing a numbing and needless 20-minute version of “Cowgirl in the Sand.”
Earlier, as the night’s well-received openers, Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders bookended their set with two Young covers, “The Loner” and “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Kissing the stage that Young would soon stand on, Hynde’s hero worship was not undone.