Bryan Pace/for New York Daily News
Performing artist Neil Young goes back to basics at a rare acoustic gig at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 6.
Neil Young had time on his mind when he took the Carnegie Hall stage for the first of four shows Monday.
Performing in his solo, acoustic guise, he bracketed the night with songs about relationships of great endurance. A song of divorce and perspective opened the night — 1996’s “From Hank to Hendrix.” An ode to longevity and hope closed it (“Long May You Run”).
In between, Young did his best to halt time. He moseyed through his 2-hour, 10-minute set, moving grandpa slow while considering which of six acoustic guitars, four keyboards or several harmonicas, he might use on a given song. He told stories about the instruments — where he bought them or who gave them to him as a gift. The stories might go somewhere, or they might not. It didn’t seem to matter, to either Young or the audience. Several times, he lightly chided fans for calling out requests. “I know what I’m going to play,” he announced.
His determination paid off with a performance of unusual engagement and nuance. Of the more than two dozen Neil Young shows I’ve seen over a 40 year period, Monday’s performance rated as the loveliest. It also ranked among the most fully committed.
It may have helped that these four Carnegie Hall shows — including ones Tuesday, Thursday and Friday — aren’t part of a long, exhausting tour. They’re isolated dates, to be followed by a short run in Canada. It may have helped, too, that Young had the memory of playing a key show at Carnegie Hall in December of 1970, at the height of his youthful prowess.
Young alluded to that night several times — to being “pretty jacked up” for it, to an audience whose requests irked him as well, and to his father, who came to the gig. After revealing that last fact, he performed “Old Man,” one of many numbers Young wrote in his 20s that make even more sense performed decades down the line.
Young also alluded to an infamous show the late Phil Ochs gave at the Hall, a night where the audience turned on him for wearing gold lame and for performing covers. After lavishly praising Ochs, Young offered his song “Changes,” another piece about the wages and rewards of time.
Other than a few such surprises, Young mainly stuck to well-known pieces, from “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” to “Heart of Gold.” But he tweaked nearly all of them with changes of key or subtle shifts in the arrangement that helped him inhabit them anew.
For “A Man Needs a Maid,” an electric organ refigured the orchestral parts, lending them a fresh chill and need. For “Southern Man” he dredged up a vocal of special agony.
Young performed the Buffalo Springfield song “Mr. Soul” at the pipe organ, which, subbed for the psychedelic guitar, lent a Gothic tone you’d expect from “The Phantom of The Opera.” He offered plush new chords for “On the Way Home,” which made a beautiful song ravishing.
Young drew a moving connection between two songs about heroin: Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death” and his own classic on the subject, “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Throughout these, and all the other songs this night, Young’s strange, high voice retained its unlikely mix of the craggy and the agile. It’s a sound both aged and young, a voice that speaks of time so profoundly it can stand outside of it.
THE COMPLETE SET LIST:
1) From Hank to Hendrix
2) On the Way Home
3) Only Love Can Break Your Heart
4) Love in Mind
Bryan Pace/for New York Daily News
The classic performance was the first of four shows at the legendary New York venue.
5) Mellow My Mind
6) Are You Ready for the Country
10) Old Man
11) Goin’ Back
12) A Man Needs a Maid
14) Southern Man
15) Mr. Soul
16) Needle of Death
17) The Needle and the Damage Done
18) Harvest Moon
19) Flying on the Ground Is Wrong
20) After the Gold Rush
21) Heart of Gold
22) Comes a Time
23) Long May You Run