Forget about the serious, cranky troubadour at Carnegie Hall you may have read about last week. At Massey Hall on Sunday, Neil Young was whimsical, sociable, mischievously political and unusually accommodating. He took a song request and smiled wider than he probably had since someone threw a shoe at George W. Bush. He rhymed "heart of gold" with "I'm getting old," he breathed new life into songs from the past and, of the storied venue (which he first played in 1971), he mentioned rumours of a renovation but urged "Don't let them change this place."
Of him, an audience was probably thinking along those same lines.
It was a full day for the 68-year-old home-grown icon, long a resident of California. The appearance was the first of four Honor the Treaties concerts to be presented across Canada this week, with an aim to drum up awareness about the Alberta oil sands controversy and to raise money for legal defence fund of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), whose treaty rights he believes have been trampled. In the afternoon he took part in a press conference on stage at Massey to speak to the media about the issue. He wore buckskin and tassels, and had quite the mouth on him. "Canada is trading integrity for money," he said, seated beside ACFN Chief Allan Adam. He described the federal government as an "embarrassment" and a "very poor imitation of the George Bush administration in the United States."
During the concert itself, he slyly continued his criticism within the surreal Pocahantas, in which broken treaties were mentioned and the line about Hollywood and Marlon Brando was switched to Ottawa and Canada's 22nd Prime Minister – "Stephen Harper, Pocahantas and me," went the updated-for-the-occasion refrain.
The evening had commenced with an opening set by the Vancouver jazz chanteuse Diana Krall, followed by a screening of a 12-minute film on the oil sands. The solo-acoustic main event began with Young seated, with a harmonica rack around his neck and one of nine stringed instruments surrounding him in his hands. "Here I am with this old guitar," he sang on the opener From Hank to Hendrix, "doing what I do."
He continued with On the Way Home, the same song that opened his two home-coming concerts at Massey on Jan. 19, 1971. Young squeezed out pensive lyrics, "Now I won't be back till later on if I do come back at all, but you know me…"
Helpless followed; it was one of two songs not performed during Young's Carnegie residency in New York. (Pocahantas was the other.) At the psychedelically painted concert piano, he seemed to rediscover the reflective 1970 ballad, playing it loosely and gently, and then patting the piano affectionately when he was done.
There was something subtly theatrical in Young's codger manner – it was if he was playing Bruce Dern playing Neil Young in a Hal Holbrook way. He talked about sleeping "good," and then switched it to the proper adverb "well," adding "thanks mom" for the grammar lesson from the past. Then came Mellow My Mind on banjo. He said the song wasn't very good, but that "it fits with me."
Young mentioned that he read that a person qualified for one thing – say, a singer-songwriter – wasn't qualified to do other things, such as speaking out on complicated issues. "I don't think that's in the constitution," said the Farm Aid co-founder. He then told a story about his other piano, which was a beat-up saloon-y upright that he had rented in Hollywood in 1970 or so and just kept the thing.
Before covering Changes – written by Phil Ochs, a "poet" who was "too sensitive" for the music business – Young related the short history about the Yorkville folk-club scene of the 1960s.
Later he would moan on the anti-war anthem Ohio as if were reliving the pain of the four deaths at Kent State. He played his "one hit" (Heart of Gold), honoured a song demand (a cover of Bert Jansch's Needle of Death) and shook the hands of the front-row people after the night-ending Long May You Run.
All highlights, those, but Mr. Soul was the show's offbeat centrepiece. The reimagined Buffalo Springfield classic from 1967 happened at the towering, ancient and ornate pump organ at the back of the stage. Accompanying himself on harmonica, Young went deep into it, seemingly lost in his own blues jam, newly playing the song from the inside out. "I dropped by to pick up a reason," he sang. And indeed he had.
Asked once about Mr. Soul by his biographer Jimmy McDonough, Young explained that the song was basically someone talking to himself – someone talking to his conscience. "He wants to be heard," Young said. That wish, a reasonable one at Massey Hall at least, was granted.
The Honor the Treaties tour continues to Winnipeg's Centennial Concert Hall, Jan. 16; Regina's Conexus Arts Centre, Jan. 17; and Calgary's Jack Singer Concert Hall, Jan. 19.