Neil Young, Bert Jansch @ Hanover Theatre in Worcester, Mass.
Friday, May 21, 2010
Neil Young has made a career out of doing whatever he wants, oblivious to any current climate of expectations. His discography is peppered with supposed missteps and wild swerves, but he’s true to his muse and no one else. In that spirit, his solo Twisted Road tour was also a bit unconventional. I’ve seen him play solo shows on a couple of tours, so I know the acoustic guitars were really given short shrift this time around, and the show was much more electric and amplified than expected, especially once the opening trio of “My My Hey Hey,” “Tell Me Why” and “Helpless” were over.
Much like the last tour, Young isn’t content to rest on his older work. He played at least four new songs, ostensibly from the forthcoming album to be produced by Daniel Lanois. His mind is still on the changes to the environment, with scenes about peaceful valleys and polar bears floating on ice floes. Love and war were also popular topics, and a harrowing tale about a hitchhiker was filled with a litany of drug references. Overall, the new batch of songs was a lot stronger than “Cough Up The Bucks” and songs about electric cars from the last tour.
Not shirking some of the songs that made his name, Young slung Old Black (his well-weathered black Les Paul guitar) over his shoulder and proceeded to rework timeless pieces like “Down By The River” and “Cortez The Killer,” creating a spareness to the songs by concentrating on the primal riffs and foregoing the trademark, drawn-out guitar solos that define those songs. Occasionally augmenting the sound by adding a bottom end via foot-pedals, he stormed through the signature protest song “Ohio,” and his guitar style of attacking the strings was well-suited.
The gentler side of his songbook was displayed via a tender, heart-felt reading of “I Believe In You” with Young on grand piano. Just before that he played harmonica and pump organ, updating the lyrics of “After The Gold Rush” to state that Mother Nature is now on the run in the 21st century (just ask the higher-ups at BP…).
He ended the encore with “Heart Of Gold,” a song he declared “one for the road.” I wondered if this was a sly reference to his liner notes from 1977’s Decade, when he stated that this song “put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I met more interesting people there.” Young never does take shortcuts, and he’s unafraid of sudden swerves and last-minute changes to his itinerary. It wouldn’t be as fun any other way.
Opening this tour is the legendary Bert Jansch. He was hand-picked for that role by Young, who claimed during his set that he used to smoke weed with Steppenwolf’s John Kay in a Toronto flophouse and listen to Jansch’s first record all night long. Like Young, Jansch has a vocal style that is a bit of an acquired taste, but his playing is nothing short of masterful. If you think his best days are behind him, with either the work with Pentangle or his late-’60s/early-’70s solo records being the high mark, I strongly urge a listening to 2006’s The Black Swan on Drag City, which is an astounding album. Jansch would also pay tribute to those who came before, with a scintillating version of Jackson C. Frank’s “Carnival.”