Neil Young made me cry at his show Tuesday night, and I have a feeling I was not the only one. This was not the behind-the-barriers, hysterical-teenage-Beatles-fan kind of crying, but quiet tears that came as a surprise after Young strummed his way into Harvest Moon before capping off a magnificent acoustic set with Heart of Gold.
Then, for the encore, Tumbleweed.
“Tumbleweed, your inner spirit is a peace sign to me.
Life is full of little tricks and we can always pick up sticks
And build again, that’s what we do.”
It was a boomer-heavy crowd and once you have lived that much life, you have probably picked up a stick or two in order to start again; Young’s music no doubt has provided the soundtrack to some of that rebuilding. Maybe that’s why this night felt, at times, like a religious experience.
Young played the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver for the first of two solo shows Tuesday night – the same venue he played in 1971, which he mentioned onstage. This time, Elvis Costello opened for him; a pop virtuoso doubleheader. (“Two Legends. One Stage,” you can imagine the ad copy reading – not that ads were required to sell tickets for these intimate concerts.)
Costello, on stage for the first time in six months, played a short, 30-minute set that omitted his biggest hits (no Alison, no Pump It Up) and was deeply rooted in storytelling.
He talked about his grandfather, a ship’s musician, making a good working wage before losing his two jobs: first on an ocean liner, and then playing in the pit of the local movie house during silent films, suddenly finding himself out of work when talkies arrived. “My grandmother, she held a mortal grudge against Al Jolson – held him personally responsible.”
He called his 1989 track Veronica – written “with the famous Mississippi blues-man Paul McCartney” – hopeful. Costello must know about hope these days. After recovering from cancer surgery, the British singer/songwriter was back on stage in his adopted hometown.
“It also is a special night for me because my boys are here tonight, and my wife is here tonight as well.” (Costello and Canadian jazz musician Diana Krall have twin sons.) He thanked Young “for letting just a passing folk singer” join the bill.
Costello, solo, held the audience in thrall for that first half-hour. Young did the same for the rest of the night, wandering the stage in his flannel shirt, fedora and harmonica neck rack like he was walking around his house in a bathrobe, roaming from room to room – or in this case, instrument to instrument (including an organ at the top of the stage), almost as if he was deciding on the spot what to play next.
Young’s set list was impeccably curated and did not dwell in deep-cut obscurity. The crowd got what they came for, including Cinnamon Girl, Old Man and Ohio, delivered with zero bells and whistles, beyond the flashing “LOVE” sign at the front of the stage and some subtle lighting.
He lost his way at times (“I’m just making [stuff] up now,” he said at one point), but he was never lost. He was home, in Canada (“nice to be back”), and he was so at home on stage, alone, surrounded by instruments he mastered one after the other (sometimes one with the other, in the case of the harmonica).
He was very chatty and comfortable, playing with the audience and responding at times to the abundant – and, I’m sorry, often obnoxious – heckles. And he paid tribute to water, “the nectar of the gods,” repeatedly as he sipped the stuff throughout the night.
His song selection also reminded us of the environmental fight that is close to his heart, including his updated lyrics to After the Gold Rush (“Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century”).
He was nearing the end of his set when he launched into the one-two emotional punch of Harvest Moon and Heart of Gold. It felt like a gift to be hearing Young sing them live, so beautifully.
And then, that encore.
“Life is full of strange delights,” he sang, strumming his ukulele. “In the darkness we find lights.”
And we did.