A scattered Neil Young at Northrop Auditorium 07/29/2010

While more than a decade of active music journalism has made me as jaded as the next overly critical jerk, that cynicism goes right out the window when it comes to Neil Young. Young was my first childhood musical hero, and one of the few I haven't distanced myself from with age and hindsight (sorry, Toad the Wet Sprocket), or become disillusioned with entirely (here's looking at you, Ryan Adams). That being said, I know Young's a mere mortal, despite a forty-years-plus stellar music career speaking to the contrary. The recorded highs have been somewhat few and far between over the last ten years - I'd argue only 2006's vitriolic Living With War definitively holds up with his best work - and last year's loopy concept album about automobiles, Fork in the Road, could have been lovably eccentric if it weren't such a musical car wreck.

Even as Young's recorded output's grown more erratic, however, his live performances have largely remained on point, so there was plenty of reason to be excited heading into last night's solo performance at the Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus. With a Daniel Lanois-produced solo album dubbed Twisted Road completed and pending a fall release - definitely not the kind of visionary producer one calls up if you're half-assing it - Young was presumably rolling into town with a full head of creative steam.

The show got off to promising enough beginnings opening with a trio of flat-out classics ("My My Hey Hey," "Tell Me Why," "Helpless") that showed Young making up for what his 64-year-old windpipes now lack in upper-register range with some fiery harmonica playing and forceful hammer-on fretwork. Unfortunately, opening with first-rate tunes from deep in his back catalog only served to make the stolid new material that followed in its wake sound all the more glaringly lacking. It's possible the three new acoustic numbers Young played next could form the core of a compelling moody minor work when set to Lanois' notable production atmospherics. Something on par with, say, 1994's Sleeps With Angels. But presented stripped bare they were funereal ramblings that offered little in the way of melody, and even less in the way of lyrical insight (trite sloganeering lyrics abounded, "Who will be the one to lead this world? Who will be a beacon in the night?").

The evening got back on track momentarily when Young switched to electric guitar for a fine rendition of "Down by the River" that managed to be both visceral and hypnotic, and the newer electric tunes showed sparks of life the acoustic material lacked ("Sign of Love's" chugging riffage in particular). The night was still largely devoid of magic, however, until Young strode over to the tack piano and spoke for the first time, introducing a tune about his granddaughter, "Leia" by dedicating it to "all the little people, the tots too young to be here tonight." The simple and sweetly poignant tune proved Young's still got the goods both lyrically and melodically, even if he delivers with less regularity these days. Subsequent moves to pump organ (a by-the-numbers "After the Goldrush" that never the less had the crowd going nuts) and piano (a mesmerizing take on "I Believe in You" that cast a ghostly reverb over Young's vocals to fine effect) kept the energy level high.

Unfortunately the proceedings came grinding to a halt once more when Young decided to deconstruct one of his best-loved tunes, "Cortez the Killer," into a fractured and glacial tone poem. It's the kind of daring move Young fanatics routinely cite as what makes Young cool - and it probably would have been if it had come within the context of a sharper show featuring a stronger set of songs. Nearing the close of this particular night, it just came off as sloppy. The evening was salvaged by an on-point "Cinnamon Girl" that had the crowd on its feet and "Old Man" predictably produced a spine-tingling group sing-along. By the time Young closed the night out with yet another dirge-y and meandering new number ("Walk With Me"), however, it was clear that even living legends have their off nights, and that the tunes making up Twisted Road will more likely be a mildly interesting detour rather than a critical stop on Young's epic musical journey.

Critic's bias: The kind of Neil Young dork that owns multiple rock biographies of the man.
The crowd: The usual legion of die-hard Neil dudes and dude-ettes with a few stuffy shirt types likely disappointed not to hear "Heart of Gold."
Overheard in the crowd: "I think he's got a good ten to fifteen years left in the tank."
Random notebook dump: "This is a song here for my brother, the late, great, Ben Keith." - Neil Young, introducing "Old Man," Keith was a longtime sideman in various Young backing band's who died earlier this week at the age of 73

Total set time: 100 minutes

Set list

1.   My My, Hey Hey (acoustic)
2.   Tell Me Why (acoustic)
3.   Helpless (acoustic)
4.   You Never Call (acoustic - new song)
5.   Peaceful Valley (acoustic - new song)
6.   Love And War (acoustic - new song)
7.   Down By The River (electric)
8.   Hitchhiker (electric - unreleased song, first performed back in 1992)
9.   Ohio (electric)
10. Sign Of Love (electric - new song)
11. Leia (tack piano - new song)
12. After The Gold Rush (pump organ)
13. I Believe In You (piano)
14. Rumblin' (electric)
15. Cortez The Killer (electric)
16. Cinnamon Girl (electric)
17. Old Man (acoustic)
18. Walk With Me (electric - new song)

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