Neil Young is not taking requests.
That didn’t stop anyone at Pantages Theatre Saturday night from yawping song titles stageward, praying from their lips to Neil’s guitar. Nor did Young appear bothered; his fans have been doing this forever.
“I love it when you ask me for those old songs and everything,” Young says in the intro to his 2018 Songs for Judy album, taken from an archival recording of his 1976 U.S. tour. “But it’s funny ‘cause what keeps you alive is what kills you, you know. Too much of the old shit, you know, uh, goodnight.”
The tracks on Songs for Judy are now the old shit themselves. Though Young had only just turned 31, he’d been making music for a full decade by then—long enough to have old shit—and by 2018, the songs he played that night, some of them new at the time, were among the many reasons we’d all turned out for this solo performance, the first of four such Minneapolis shows over the next week.
Now 73 years old and compacted by age, but with his voice as strong and resonant as ever, Young stuck to a tight 18-song setlist more or less in line with his recent Madison and Milwaukee shows. Yet, he gave the concert a feeling of spontaneity, scuttling around the stage from acoustic guitar (“Mansion on the Hill”) to banjo (“Old King”) to piano (“Green is Blue”) to a second piano (“Broken Arrow”) to a small organ (“Like a Hurricane”) to an electric guitar (“Ohio”), and ending with a tender ukulele encore of “Tumbleweed.” In a small black hat and flannel shirt, he was an old man puttering around in his workshop, sorting through the clutter of songs he’d accumulated over the years, intermittently pausing to say, “This is a nice place, huh?” and “Nice to see you people here, glad you’re here” and (again) “Isn’t this a great place?”
When he ambled onstage, a full theater rose to their feet with whistles and cheers, then quieted to hear which of his opening chords would break the nine-year silence since his last visit to the Twin Cities. “If he plays ‘Ambulance Blues,’ I might cry,” I told my friend Keith as the lights were about to go down.
Hand to god, my lips to Neil’s guitar: He broke the silence with “Ambulance Blues.”
What could it mean? this deranged fan thought to herself. “It’s hard to know the meaning of this song,” Neil sang from the stage. It meant nothing, of course, except that when someone is as much a fixture in your life as Neil Young is in mine (and in the lives of 1,000 other people who paid as much as $300 for a seat in the theater that night) every moment in his presence feels imbued with significance.
My father didn’t place headphones around my mother’s belly and pump After the Gold Rush directly into my fetal brain, but he may as well have. On any given day, if Young weren’t already screeching from the stereo speakers, my dad would unexpectedly yelp out the opening lines to “Love is a Rose.” Any dark night, as my mom would go to turn the ignition, my dad would croak the start of “Roll Another Number (For the Road).” In high school, On the Beach soundtracked my long teenage drives. (I was angsty.) I soothed my first heartbreak with “Comes a Time” and pictured dancing at my wedding to “Harvest Moon.” (I had feelings!) When I was very little, after seeing a photo of him with long hair in the ’60s, I may have even believed my dad was Neil Young. If I live long enough for the dementia to set in, maybe I’ll believe it again.
Is it special for the emotional bridge between a father and daughter to be the chords and words of a weirdo Canadian rocker? Judging by the fair number of older fans accompanied by their adult children at last night’s show, not really.
All the same, the timing of this unprecedented Twin Cities tour is fortuitous, and if decades of Neil’s philosophical rambling has taught me anything, it’s that nothing means anything—or maybe everything means something. My dad turned 76 on the day Young returned to Minnesota. Next week he’ll fly up from Memphis, our hometown, so we can see Neil’s last show in the Twin Cities. It will be the first Neil Young show we’ve seen together. It will also likely be the last.
If anyone could forgive me for being sentimental about this, that old nostalgia-trader Neil Young could. (What is sentimentality if not nostalgia in the making?) Young has always walked on while glancing backward, a dreamer for tomorrow and a poet for yesterday. He tried (and failed) to launch an electric car company in 2008, but as David Carr's 2012 New York Times profile pointed out, he is “fundamentally analog," using a manual lock and key to open the gate to his ranch. On Saturday, after his opening song warned "it's easy to get buried in the past," he continued to carry his torch for bygone days with “On the Way Home,” “Journey Through the Past,” and “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.”
Early in his set, Young plucked the telltale notes of “Old Man,” and the crowd reverberated with emotional recognition before softly murmuring along. In the next song, “Old King,” Young sang the line “I still got a long way to go.” The crowd cheered. They love the old shit, and as he takes to the road again, they pray it never kills him.
Mansion on the Hill
On the Way Home
Green Is Blue
See the Sky About to Rain
Rockin' in the Free World
Like a Hurricane
Journey Through the Past
One of These Days
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Heart of Gold