Photo by Bob Lee for LA Beat.
Around the time he was starting his third song during the opening night of a four-show run at the Ford, Neil Young looked around and asked his audience, “Nice place, isn’t it?”
We in the seats hooted in universal agreement. It’s not often we get to see Neil in such intimate surroundings, though not unprecedented – I’ve had the chance to see him with Crazy Horse at a 1,500-seat theater in Bakersfield, and with Promise of the Real, aka Willie’s Kids, at a similar place in Pomona. Real hardcore fans may tell tales of visiting the Corral in Topanga on one of the nights Neil and his crew held court on the tiny stage in the early seventies. But not even those privileged viewings could compare to the atmosphere in the Ford, its natural hillside backdrop making it feel as though we were hanging out on folding chairs at Young’s (former) ranch. You expected to see a mountain lion walk along the range, or maybe a coyote howling along.
In reality, only the drunks around us howled, or in the case of one particular enthusiast in the row behind us, snarled and growled. But in close proximity, Young’s aura has a way of taking up your entire field of vision as soon as he straps on a guitar. His vibe is strongly felt. And his performances that I observed on the first and last night of the run were warm and very potent.
The advertised conceit for this “Coastal Tour” is a night of the Non-Hits, Young playing songs from the catalog that haven’t been played in concert very often. The tour opener on June 30 featured the live premieres of three songs, along with thirteen others that, indeed, I can’t remember him ever doing in the twenty-five times I’ve seen him before, except for a couple of Buffalo Springfield numbers that he did when they reunited. Perhaps just to mess with our expectations of the unexpected, he threw in two of his best-known compositions, “Ohio” and “Heart of Gold”, toward the end of the night. That was, in fact, two more “greatest hits” than he did in 2000, when my wife asked me if it was normal for him to completely ignore all of his most popular songs. As in, does he normally not play any of them, all night? I hadn’t noticed.
While his previous solo appearances in LA that I’ve seen have been entirely acoustic, he now breaks out the electric guitar on four numbers. “Song X”, one of two numbers from 1995’s Mirror Ball, brought his hardest edge to the stage for a minute. You could practically hear the band behind him as he did a ripping solo and answered himself with the sea chanty response, “hey ho, away we go, on the road to never.” This was followed by a track from 1994’s Sleeps With Angels, another one that didn’t get extensively toured in its day, but was well represented on this night’s list of songs. That “Godfather of Grunge” era seemed to be on his mind as he considered the set list for this run (the soon to be reissued Ragged Glory also had a couple of contributions), and the sparse, resonant piano and organ-backed versions that made up the center of the show cast a hypnotic spell.
It’s certainly encouraging, if not surprising, to see Young putting his effort into such an idiosyncratic show. It’s the kind of thing you can pull off when you have a number of fans who will cheer the opening chords of something like “If You Got Love”, a song most famous for appearing on the track list on the cover of 1982’s Trans, but not the album itself. Some of the folks I sat with had flown in from Colorado, New York, and Houston, not wanting to miss the opportunity. It felt like a special occasion, a thank-you to his fans in the town where he started his professional career, stories of which came up often. My wife Elise came back with me for the final show, and despite her unfamiliarity with some of the tunes, found it deeply moving in those intimate surroundings. The vibe is strong.
Neil Young plays the Greek Theater on Monday, July 10 and Thursday, July 13. Some tickets remain on sale at Ticketmaster. Note that due to Young’s anti-scalping policy, the only way to transfer tickets is to resell them at face value, and good seats have been popping up periodically on their site this week.