At Rogers Arena on Sunday, November 11
It was a good night for community singing. “O Canada” opened, “Happy Birthday” closed, and in the middle everyone got to yell along with the chorus to “F*!#in’ Up”.
That’s “Why do I keep fuckin’ up?” in case you didn’t know. And it’s a fun thing to shout.
It’s fun to sing “O Canada” too, especially on Remembrance Day and in the company of Neil Young, who really does epitomize the true north strong and free. It was also rather sweet to croon “Happy Birthday” to everyone’s favourite Ontario boy, even if Young’s show with long-time compadres Crazy Horse ended a bit shy of his actual 67th. And it was definitely a treat to see the stooped, jowly rock star who stepped on-stage at 9 p.m. turn into the beaming, youthful figure who reluctantly departed two hours later.
You want proof of music’s restorative power? Check out a Neil Young concert. By the time Young launched into a blistering rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 hit “Mr. Soul”, every greybeard in the crowd was an adolescent all over again.
As for proof of his personal agelessness, the 183-minute version of “Walk Like a Giant”—from Young’s just released 35th studio album, Psychedelic Pill—brought the noise with the fury of a hormonally crazed teenager who’s just discovered the electric guitar. The hourlong coda alone—a scorched-earth foray into hammer-of-the-gods howitzer blasts and six-string banshee wailing—could easily have given Godspeed You! Black Emperor a lesson in end-of-the-world soundtracking.
Okay, we kid—but only about the running times, and not by much.
Aside from a few other excursions into functional nostalgia, including a heartbroken “The Needle and the Damage Done” and an appropriately punked-up “My My, Hey Hey”, Young and Crazy Horse delivered mostly elongated versions of the already very long songs on Psychedelic Pill.
This didn’t bother many in the audience: if you know the Horse, you know that occasional passages of tedium are the price you pay for those transcendent moments of inspiration that only this particular combination of forces can deliver. So if on this night “Twisted Road” was more lead than gold, the poignant “Ramada Inn” more than repaid our interest with its lilting chorus and liquid Les Paul lead lines.
In fact, Young’s electric guitars crackled with energy all night long, whether he was replicating the overdriven glory of 1969’s “Cinnamon Girl” or exploring a recently purchased electronic toy that gave every other note a rumbling, subterranean, and wholly otherworldly afterglow.
Yes, the old guy was in good form.
The same can’t necessarily be said of the support acts, the Sadies and Los Lobos, both of whom largely wasted the opportunity to riff on the Psychedelic Pill concept with some lysergic action of their own.
Given a shamefully brief 20-minute opening slot, Toronto four-piece the Sadies played the Louvin Brothers’ country-gospel standard “There’s a Higher Power” and flatpicking guitar workout “Ridge Runner Reel” rather than venture into the warped twang-pop of their excellent 2010 release Darker Circles. And Los Lobos were, perhaps predictably, all over the map, ranging from conjunto- and cumbia-influenced Spanish-language numbers to one of the dullest blues tunes ever to grace a stadium stage. Standing centre stage with a silver Gretsch guitar, former drummer Louie Perez was a fidgety and distracting presence until he redeemed himself with a shockingly accomplished and jazzy solo late in the Los Angeles–bred band’s set. Next time, could we hear more of that, please?
Singer-guitarists Cesar Rojas and David Hidalgo were more consistently enjoyable, with the latter getting solidly into the spirit of the evening via a “Dream in Blue” that showcased his love of Young’s ’60s contemporary Steve Winwood.
All that really matters, however, is that Young, now in his seventh decade of making music, is in strong and—according to his recently published autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace—sober form. If he keeps on with these sweaty two-hour sets, burnout might yet claim him, but for now fading away is most definitely not in the cards.