Montreal Gazette: Mike Bell: 20th January 2014
Neil Young mesmerizes with once-in-a lifetime show
It was somewhat fortuitous timing.
Earlier Sunday morning, one of the Canadian stations carried locally was playing The Simpsons Movie, a film that is, at its very core, under the guise of road trips to Alaska, subplots about the need for family, second chances and redemption, and hidden beneath spider songs about pigs named Plopper, an environmental film.
They make the statement from the outset about the direction they’re headed and the route they’ll travel when a cartoon version of punk band Green Day (redundant, possibly) is shown performing the show’s theme on a barge/stage floating on a lake in front of the enthusiastic citizens of Springfield.
“We’ve been playing for three and a half hours,” says the animated version of frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. “Now we’d like just a minute of your time to say something about the environment.”
The band are, of course, booed and bottled and met with angry calls to just shut up and sing.
Which brings us to Neil Young’s sold-out show Sunday night at the Jack Singer Concert Hall.
It follows a complete, sometimes divisive week of interviews, press conferences, pro and con op-eds, attacks, counterattacks and rhetoric as Young and his Honor the Treaties benefit tour made their way across the country to raise money and awareness for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Legal Defense Fund as they get set to battle oilsands development in northern Alberta.
After a somewhat feisty press conference earlier in the day, in the petroleum-stoked belly of the beast, the evening concert, the final one of the jaunt, was, for the most part, the opportunity for the legendary artist to shut up and sing. And us to shut up and listen.
Or, to quote lines from the opening song from his performance, From Hank to Hendrix, “Here I am with this old guitar, doin’ what I do.” What he does best.
And, oh, how magically he did it for those lucky enough to find themselves among the few to make their way into the intimate, once-in-a-lifetime, solo acoustic gig.
Young was in remarkable form, in exquisite voice, in a warm, comfortable and giving mood as he sat on the Singer stage, amid a handful of guitars, pianos and other well-worn instruments, plucking from the collection, talking to them, telling some of their stories and histories, and picking tunes from his timeless, well-worn catalogue that still has all of its power intact. In fact, perhaps even more so thanks to the passage of time and effects they’ve had on the man from whence they’ve come.
For proof, all you had to hear were the opening words of Helpless or the dreamy chorus of Only Love Can Break Your Heart — both sending shivers, walking the line between beaten and beatific, haunted and heavenly, sad and sanguine.
The rest of the evening, the bottomless offering of classics saw Young walking those lines with a skill and ease which were disarming and frankly awe-inspiring.
Be it at a piano for Love In Mind, on both banjo and harmonica for Mellow My Mind, playing a pump organ for a dirty and steamy Mr. Soul or the tour-appropriate Pocahontas (which he gave an appropriate lyrical reworking), seated front and centre for Harvest, an unforgettable version of Old Man, the stark and devastating Ohio and a howling take on Southern Man, or standing for the area appropriate cover of Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds, it was as if he was crafting the songs for the very first time, in the moment, on this night, in this building, and in our presence.
And if you didn’t feel that, you weren’t listening.
Perhaps the only criticism of the evening could be that while Young kept his part of the bargain, there were some in the audience who had a hard time doing the same. He, for the most part, shut up and played — and when he spoke, did so about the music and his past without agenda — but there were a handful of idiots who refused to keep quiet and listen, yelling out inanities at inopportune moments, hooting and whooping, and at times killing the mood that he had so skilfully set.
But still, that’s on them, not on him. Young had done his talking and was willing to let his music say so, so much more on this night.
And when all was said and done, it was one of the best shows this city has been blessed with in recent memory.
Of this, there can be no sides, no arguments, no debates.
As for opener, Canadian contemporary jazz chanteuse Diana Krall, she, too, was aware of why she and us were gathered together, also acknowledging it during a brief introduction to Let It Rain halfway through her almost hour-long, solo set.
“This song’s all about love,” she said, sitting at one of Young’s keyboards. “So I’ll just shut up and sing.”
She did, again, with a sense of familiarity and looseness that were infused her few originals and many covers — Bob Dylan’s Simple Twist of Fate, Cole Porter’s Don’t Fence Me In, Joni Mitchell’s Black Crow, a couple of Tom Waits’s tunes including Take It With Me, and a gorgeous version of The Band’s Ophelia — and made the night something special.
Or that much more special.