Published May 15, 2019Neil Young played his first solo Vancouver show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in 1971. On Tuesday night, he returned by himself for the first of two back-to-back shows. An organ, banjo, three pianos and eight guitars stood onstage — a lot of hardware, considering guest Elvis Costello also performed solo. But the two rotated through them all.
Elvis Costello solo and acoustic is a rarity and a treat for that reason alone. Unfortunately, Costello's solo arrangement drained a vital classic like "Veronica" of life and he clunked through a tepid start with "Accidents Will Happen" and "Either Side of the Same Town." He gained his footing when he showed his cheeky side, though. On "Monkey to Man," he roasted loudmouth malcontents who occupy political office. He voiced similar commentary on a new piano number, "A Face in the Crowd." After only six songs, the audience rose in applause, proving how little an artist of such renown requires to get a standing ovation.
Young was much more versatile. Stripped-down and slowed down, "Cinnamon Girl" retained its power without Crazy Horse. "On the Way Home" had more heart than the easy listening original by Buffalo Springfield. The aching, fragile "War of Man" and "Old Man" were spellbinding.
He crossed the thin line between fragility and tenderness on "I Believe in You," which faded away with delicate, twinkling piano. "Out on the Weekend" and the tear-jerking "Harvest Moon" were among the night's most heartfelt performances; the latter roused a merited standing ovation.
Even casual fans know Young has a reputation for being a grump. So it was surprising that fans were so vocal, shouting out song requests and "I love you, Neil!" They even attempted to insert clap-alongs, but failed to keep time on "Eternity." "If anybody comes back tomorrow, you better know it better than that," Young managed to joke. One nonsense-blurting fan didn't get off so easily, though. Young quipped two simple words: "Shut up."
Young's the sort of grump whose every utterance and movement is subject to laughter. Even sipping his glass of water, which he proclaimed as God's nectar, became a source of amusement. As did Young shuffling around the stage, trying to decide which instrument to pick up. Some moments did warrant laughter, though. "I'm going to kick myself in the ass," he muttered as he tried to remember a song on piano. He abandoned it for "Expecting to Fly" instead. Then he confessed, "I'm just making shit up now," before deciding on a banjo for "Old King."
A Neil Young show would not be complete without politicized songs, and he played plenty. "After the Gold Rush" rang with alarming relevance as he sang, "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century." Harmonica and pipe organ formed a potent combo on "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)." Here, he expressed sublime reverence for Mother Nature while excoriating human's greed. This severe stretch of songs was also when he plugged in for the first and only time, for "Ohio." The discordant riff ripped, and the crowd popped, a riotous moment indeed.
Neil Young has developed a reputation for lackadaisical performances in recent years. He shuffled about and failed to remember one song, yes, but he's 73. Moreover, he nailed it on an emotional level, proving the endurance of his music — Neil Young in his late stage is still better than most, when he wants to be.