In 1971, Neil Young returned to his old stomping grounds in Toronto for a pair of triumphant gigs at Massey Hall, then as now among the finest stages in town. Famously ignored as a folksinger while living near the hip Yorkville district in the mid-‘60s, Young gave a bit of artistic I-told-you-so that worked for everyone involved. Not only was Young able to illustrate to a few thousand fans what they had missed when he was having trouble even booking a gig a few years earlier, but these now in-the-know folks were able to reclaim this homegrown artist as their own. Here was Neil Young, raised in Winnipeg, bred in Toronto’s Yorkville scene, unleashed upon the world as a (perhaps the) great Canadian artist.
On the justly celebrated 2007 “official bootleg” release of one of the 1971 Massey Hall gigs, Young can be heard performing an extraordinarily intimate, at times daring, and always compelling set of material. Featuring nothing but guitar, vocals, harmonica, and some piano (all played by Young, alone onstage), the recording traces the unvarnished singer-songwriter aesthetic of the early ‘70s, exaggerating the fact that, underneath all of the artifice of pop music, one must begin with a pretty good song. Young, whether writing confessional material like “Love in Mind”, “Old Man” and “A Man Needs a Maid” (about his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress) or fictions with open-ended interpretive possibilities like “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down by the River”, was exceptionally adept at this stage of his career at storytelling, at developing evocative imagery, and at conveying emotion. This concert has been cited by many listeners as his finest hour, and it is tough to argue with that conclusion.
And so, when it was announced a few months back that Neil Young would be returning to Massey Hall 40 years later (though not quite to the day) to perform two more solo shows, most of Toronto’s music fans picked up the phone and dialed for tickets. This was going to be huge, great, enormous, important. That was the buzz, the word. Indeed, Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme planned to shoot the shows for a film (his third on Young) which would be ostensibly about the symmetry of two key concerts at the same symbolic venue. As anticipation built around Toronto in the lead up to the gigs—the Junos, Canada’s Grammys, were held in Toronto this Spring and featured a lengthy homage to the very Yorkville scene which supposedly birthed Neil Young and so many other world-class talents (Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Bruce Cockburn, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Steppenwolf, Rick James) – many wondered what he was going to do. Would he play a similar set, revisiting the old material in new and inventive ways? Would he feature the astoundingly wide breadth of his material, thrilling us with acoustic renditions of some of his classic rock numbers (as he did, to some effect, in the Unplugged sessions of the mid-‘90s)? Or, would he throw us all for a collective loop, and do something utterly unexpected and unforgettable?
Perhaps there is always a danger of expecting too much from enigmatic characters such as Neiler. This is the guy who famously “headed for the ditch” in the early ‘70s after his growing fame had positioned him in “the middle of the road”, dropping a series of rushed, harshly recorded, and wildly eclectic records which (though filled with top-flight material) were basically poison to the fans who had fallen in love with the mellow flavour of the stuff he was doing on his mega-hit Harvest record. So, in retrospect, I guess we should have known what to expect. You know, maybe we did, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to believe it.
Here’s the thing. Neil Young returned to Massey Hall and gave an OK, at times kinda lousy, show. He never addressed the adoring, rabid crowd (many of whom had paid in excess of $200 for a seat). He played a great deal of material from his most recent record, the great-sounding but otherwise thin Le Noise. Sure, he did a few acoustic numbers in the old style, but they were the opening three songs. In fact, at that point, following an especially strong version of “Helpless” (with its name-checking of Ontario raising the roof in the joint), he had the whole place in the palm of his hand. The room was electric with anticipation, with excitement, and with, well, love. And then he headed for the ditch. As the new songs piled up, one after the other, his heavily treated electric guitars layering on the sound but the tunes themselves wallowing in throwaway lyrics, on-the-nose sentiments, and underbaked moralizing, the audience all around this reviewer started to shift about in their seats. People got up and down to get beers. Cellphones flashed on and off. People whispered to their neighbours. The bubble had burst.
Though there were some absolutely unmistakably great Neil Young moments here and there – “Tell Me Why” was pitch perfect, the heavily distorted take on “Cinnamon Girl” was electrifying, and the sweet version of “I Believe in You” was an unexpected highlight – his somewhat lame rehash of “Ohio” fell flat, as did his rhythm-free strum on the epic “Cortez the Killer” which plodded rather than soared. As for the new material, to put it plainly, none of it can stand up to that other stuff. To fail to bring in a song to bridge the 30 years between “My My Hey Hey” and “Le Noise” was the key problem here. The leap from the material of the mid-‘70s and before to the stuff he is doing now was always jarring, never organic. It was always a juxtaposition between a stone classic, an astonishing and unforgettable standard, and a song that is destined to be a minor composition, a footnote from a legend.
As Neil Young wandered around the stage between songs (this was his shtick, to literally lope around kind of aimlessly, occasionally caressing an instrument, or pantomiming a conversation with the “Cigar Store Indian”-type statue that (unaccountably) adorned the otherwise uncluttered stage), we sat there wondering when he was going to tell us a story about the old days in Toronto, connect with us about the classic Massey shows this one was reflecting, or at least acknowledge us at all beyond clapping for us at the beginning and end of the show. In the 1971 shows Neil Young was a man with tales to tell, yarns to spin, and songs to illustrate his thoughts, emotions and fears. The man we saw was, as he put it in the only non-album song of the night (“You Never Call”), just “working”. Which is something, but it isn’t enough. Sometimes, maybe, you shouldn’t go home again.