LOS ANGELES—You’d be forgiven if you confused last Tuesday for a randomly selected date from 1975, what with the Eagles issuing their first new album in almost three decades the same day that Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young were performing three miles apart at different venues in downtown Los Angeles.
Think about it: When does that ever happen? Even without the Eagles this is extremely unusual. Though Springsteen has joined Young a few times over the years for a song or two—they were last seen together doing “All Along the Watchtower” and “Souls of the Departed” at a 2004 Vote for Change concert in St. Paul, Minn.—the last time I can recall them appearing so close to each other in Southern California was March 1994, when they each performed their best song Oscar nominee from “Philadelphia.” (Springsteen’s moving character study won; Young’s achingly elegiac piece should have.)
Coincidentally, both of these legends with overlapping fan bases are currently touring behind new albums that find them plumbing their best `70s work for inspiration—Young more so than Springsteen. Where to some degree the Boss’ “Magic” recaptures the drive and grandeur he set forth with “Born to Run,” Young’s just-released “Chrome Dreams II”—a sequel of sorts to a never-released but widely bootlegged `77 collection—finds him revisiting several sonic avenues of his Nixon-era work, from intensely intimate acoustic pieces to torrential blasts of Crazy Horse rock that run well past 15 minutes.
That’s only one indication of how much the mercurial, unpredictable Young is greatly enjoying another journey through the past as of late. Last year, he launched a series of from-the-vault concert discs that presumably will run many volumes, and chronologically (the second, “Live From Massey Hall,” falls between his 1970 masterpiece “After the Gold Rush” and his commercial blockbuster “Harvest” two years later). Meanwhile, Neilphiles continue to salivate at the prospect of a long-rumored “Archives” box set, a treasure trove of unreleased material Young has been assembling that looks more and more like a reality with each passing year.
Then there’s this stunning two-part performance he gave Tuesday night at the new Nokia Theatre, profoundly confirming that he has engulfed himself in “the old folky days” when “the air was magic when we played,” as he recalled in the first of many verses from “Ambulance Blues,” a brilliantly convoluted piece of impressionism (“It’s hard to say the meaning of this song”) from 1974’s “On the Beach.”
In addition to that slowly unraveling epic, consider the wealth of rarely-aired and still-unreleased material he squeezed into his dozen-song acoustic set: a riveting piano-and-synth rendition of “A Man Needs a Maid,” its go-it-alone drama underscored by the use of “The Loner” and “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” as openers to his electric portion; the dusting off of “Sad Movies” and “Mellow My Mind”; a rearrangement of “Harvest” for banjo; the inclusion of “Campaigner” (one of its lines about “even Richard Nixon’s got soul” updated for Bush’s benefit) and “Love is a Rose,” two of three songs this night (the gorgeous “Winterlong” the third) that only appear on Young’s sprawling `77 retrospective “Decade.”
All that plus “Gold Rush,” “Old Man” (in the spot usually occupied by “Heart of Gold” on this tour) and a strong new song, “Love Art Blues,” which in one couplet sums up this master’s lifelong dilemma: “My songs are all so long, and my words are all so sad / Why must I choose between the best things I ever had?”
Indeed, he doesn’t. Love he has in abundance, and not just from ardent admirers willing to pay $257 for choice seats. Neil’s wife Pegi is, as usual, along for backing-vocal support on this trek—and given the opening slot to show off sweetly plaintive selections from her recently released self-titled debut, including one track (“Love is Like Water”) with a deliberately unsettling shift in chording that she here revealingly redubbed “Aneurysm Blues.” (“I’ll do anything for your love, just please bring it back to me” might seem a cliche from someone else, but in light of her husband’s brush with mortality two years ago, it comes across nakedly honest.)
As for art, well, it’s sometimes forgotten how much Young has long employed theatricality at his shows, a matter he has taken strides to correct this decade, notably with the full-cast tour of his morality play “Greendale” in 2003 and Jonathan Demme’s richly captured concert film from last year, “Neil Young: Heart of Gold.” This time he has put together a subtler array of visuals that, with its willingness to dress the stage while still leaving portions starkly blank and allowing crew members to mill about in plain view, resembles Talking Heads’ creation for “Stop Making Sense,” albeit scaled-back and with decidedly less motion.
The main gimmick—during the electric half, that is—is to have a painter in barbershop-quartet attire (he was the Devil during “Greendale”) tucked in a corner of the stage, mock-touching up Earl Green’s canvases with his back to the crowd, then placing them one by one on a large easel to the side of the stage, each announcing the next song. It was a nifty trick that illuminated newer pieces in particular, the murk of the extended guitar workout “No Hidden Path” captured in splattered dark greens.
That Young, clad in a weathered brown suit, could seamlessly fuse that colorful roar (backed by faithful hands Rick Rosas, Ralph Molina and Ben Keith) with the casual interaction of the acoustic segment is in some way testament to his idiosyncratic genius. That he was more willing than ever to respond to shouted-out comments, meanwhile, suggests that, as he turns 62, Young is more in touch with his audience than ever. (They holler requests at an alarming volume these days, leading Young to quip, “I used to have to worry about what I was gonna say between songs.”)
“Here I am with this old guitar, doing what I do,” he humbly announced at the outset, in “From Hank to Hendrix.” What he does, however, remains unlike anything anyone else attempts. He’s been unparalleled for years—the older he and his more rapidly fading peers get, the more evident it becomes.
Not that he’ll indulge such talk. “You’re the king!” one fan bellowed during a quiet moment.
“Elvis, Elvis, Elvis!” he reprimanded. “C’mon, that’s not right.”