Neil Young At Massey Hall in Toronto on Tuesday
There was a row of amps in the middle of the stage, and three beautiful old keyboard instruments – a grand piano, an upright and a pedal organ – standing at three points of the compass. Except for the absence of a drum kit, the stage at Massey Hall looked as if the band might arrive at any moment.
But it was all Neil Young, all the time. His current tour is a solo adventure, though you might also call it an experiment in making one sound like many.
It’s very much the Le Noise tour, planned and executed in line with the richly expansive minimalism of that recent album. Young and producer Daniel Lanois asked themselves, in essence: “How much can we get from a single electric guitar?” – and came up with a fine-grained roar, replete with sounds from the instrument’s half-hidden vault of overtones and bass resonances.
We got the fullest display of that during Young’s live performance of Hitchhiker. This personal chronicle of drug use and its effects billowed from his guitar with a raw animal energy that seemed to personify the demons he was singing about. The tonic drones that carried the verses became immense, and when he activated a bass-coupling foot pedal during the chorus, the whole building shook. The instrument’s reverberant tumult pushed his voice to the limit, as if he were howling from the middle of a long bad trip, instead of recounting it from a safe distance.
He got through most of the songs of Le Noise, including Peaceful Valley Boulevard, a parable-like narrative of environmental and cultural degradation, and Walk with Me, a love song built in such a way that both Young’s wife Pegi and his oldest fans could hear it as addressed personally to them. It’s a strong collection that spans all of his songwriting voices, from the intimate and personal to the prophetic, sometimes within a single verse. I would have preferred to hear Angry World, which he didn’t play (and for which he won a Grammy), than Love and War, which I find the least satisfying on the album.
He salted the new material with older songs, from his solo catalogue and from his days with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The big, bold Le Noise treatment worked wonderfully on Cortez the Killer, which took on an awesome meditative depth. Ohio wasn’t quite so successful – the pumped-up guitar didn’t really make up for the loss of those familiar choral vocals. Cinnamon Girl ran into a lot of clamour for a song about chasing the moonlight.
The show opened with a few acoustic performances, including My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), in which Young offset the woody warmth of the acoustic guitar with astringent blasts on harmonica. He also played single songs on the three keyboards: the unreleased Leia on upright piano, the vulnerable I Believe in You at the grand, and After the Gold Rush on pedal organ, whose reedy snarl in the big cadential chords brought us back to an old-time version of the dense sounds he was getting from his souped-up guitars.
He didn’t say much to his excitable audience, apart from a quip about the little ones who weren’t in the crowd and the grandpas who were. Between songs, he ambled about the stage as if he were entirely alone.
This show and Wednesday’s follow-up were filmed by Jonathan Demme for the third of his Neil Young concert documentaries, but you’d scarcely have guessed by looking at the stage. The lighting was dramatically subdued. It often came from just a couple of sources, sometimes with a dappling that fell at Young’s feet or across his back, as if he were in a forest. I saw only one camera, gliding along the lip of the stage with its lens angled up from floor level.
Over all, it was a remarkable show for its focus and intensity, and quite moving at times, though by the end I wondered if the power of the Le Noise approach might have been better represented in smaller servings, with even more variety between. There was something a bit unrelenting about that wall of one-man sound.