Love and War
April 30, 1999
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 1999, Volume 6, #6
Written by John Metzger
On April 30, Neil Young took the stage at the intimate Rosemont Theatre for the second of three solo acoustic performances at the Chicago-area venue. Surrounded by a sea of instruments that included several guitars and harmonicas, a banjo, two pianos, and a pipe organ, Young gracefully delivered a two-set career retrospective that mixed some of his best-known songs with some of his most obscure. This left some fans somewhat frustrated and bewildered — in fact, one person yelled out for Young to play something he knew — while others reveled in the unknown and unfamiliar that included several unrecorded songs like Daddy Went Walkin' and Slowpoke.
Young has always done things on his terms, and this evening's concert was no different. More often than not he settled into each song, barely acknowledging the audience in attendance, perhaps not wishing to instigate an onslaught of requests. A pre-taped, pre-show proclamation had advised the audience that the set list was scripted, and this seemed to quell the masses for two-thirds of the show. As the evening wore on, the audience did grow restless, but for the most part, Young succeeded in bringing them into his world and his stories — an amazing feat given the relative obscurity of some of the songs.
This is certainly no surprise. Young is a veteran musician, and he knows quite well how to link his songs together into the perfect format. He knows how to structure his sets to enhance the messages behind his songs, while building emotion and direction. Though each song was a complete portrait in itself, Young wove them together in perfect cohesiveness in order to demonstrate the tenuous balance between love and war in the human heart. Perhaps this was Young's way of speaking out against the madness of the past few weeks — from Kosovo to Colorado.
Young looked like a kid in a candy store as he moved from instrument to instrument. He turned the Buffalo Springfield classic Flying on the Ground is Wrong into a slow, haunting excursion on grand piano, and he delivered Love is a Rose on a guitjo as if singing from his own back porch. Young began After the Gold Rush on an upright piano and performed a dynamic harmonica solo as he moved to pump organ to complete the final verse. The room was filled with the powerful vibrations that resonated from both the music and his lyrics of destruction and rebirth.
In addition, Young's voice has never sounded stronger, packing volumes of emotion into the slightest inflection. At times, he sang with a fragile whisper, allowing his voice to float gently over the tender sound of his guitar. Whether the topic was a love that was lost, a love that was yearned after, or a war that was waged on the environment or a culture of people, each articulation that Young made carried with it a world-weary sorrow.
Two of his best performances of the evening occurred on longer selections, which he tackled simply on guitar and harmonica. Young magically allowed his voice to drift dreamily over the steady crunch of strummed rhythms and fluid melodies to which he added a dash of harmonica to wring tears from dry eyes.
Young's cryptic Ambulance Blues was delivered with a stream-of-consciousness flow that captured a general ambience of frustration as the topic moved from burn-outs to poverty to love. On Cortez the Killer, Young wove a tale of ethnic cleansing, bathing the song with beautiful acoustic guitar textures while describing the alluring culture of Montezuma and his people prior to the arrival the Spanish explorer. As the song neared its conclusion, he combined guitar interludes with the lyric, "He came dancing across the water." With each repetition, Young turned the music into giant waves which forcefully crashed against Cortez's ship, carrying with it impending doom and destruction for an entire civilization.
Young has long been hailed as a musical inspiration, but far too rarely have his social and political views been embraced. While most of his contemporaries sold their souls to big business long ago, Young continues to refuse to jump on the bandwagon, going so far as to not allow his tours to be sponsored by a corporation. This may result in a slightly higher ticket price, but Young's integrity as an artist remains solidly in tact. He has always wanted to do things his way, and often has chosen to walk away rather than to bend or compromise his ideals. It's a lesson Young demonstrated throughout this solo acoustic concert, and it's one we should all take to heart.
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Copyright © 1999 The Music Box