Neil Young Favors Cool Obscurities in Solo Tour Opener at L.A.’s Ford

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“What is that?” Neil Young asked toward the end of his solo-tour-opening show Friday night at the Ford amphitheater in the Hollywood hills, referring to a strange, seemingly distant but quite audible sound that occasionally punctuated his songs or commentary. “Are you hearing that all night?” This was not an audio hallucination; the fairly intimate crowd of 1,200 was privy to it, too, and some had been looking up earlier to see if it might be a mighty wind causing a whoosh in the scenically placed palm trees over the stage. It was not. “It’s One Direction!” someone in the audience finally shouted — not quite getting it right, but on point in alluding to the source of the noise, intermittent crowd roars from a Louis Tomlinson concert at the Hollywood Bowl, just on the other side of the 101. “How do you like my new band?” Young finally quipped, before getting back to business, resigning himself to the stray sound effects.

These occasional faint outbursts weren’t too bothersome, truth be told, and did not go a very long way toward interrupting the magic unfolding inside the Bowl’s much tinier, 103-year-old cousin. If anything, maybe the fleeting ambient sounds served a small purpose in setting up a not-so-ironic contrast with what was happening here on the other side of the tracks, as it were. It was cross-canyon Opposite Day in nearly every regard, starting with a small audience that sat mostly in rapt silence (aside from the yahoo prone to shouting “Keep goin’, Neil!,” as if Young’s laconic stage presence suggested someone in need of a pep talk). Then there was the subject matter, with Young favoring material that at least touches on the passing of time or feeling a touch of alienation from other generations or one’s own. And then, finally, you had the whole gambit of this tour, in which Young made it clear in an online chat before tickets went on sale that this brief west coast solo run would have a setlist mostly of songs he’d rarely or never played in concert before. We will know Louis Tomlinson has really made it if someday he sells out a tour on the promise of “the non-hits, nothin’ but the non-hits.”

Young will upscale the tour a bit, once he finishes the four opening dates at the Ford (formerly known as the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre and, before that, the Pilgrimage, in the 1920s through ’70s). He follows these dates with two nights at the Greek — one sold out, plus an added date with handfuls of tickets left — succeeded by shows in other parts of California and Washington, Oregon and Nevada. But the Ford was the place to be for many of his most die-hard devotees, for the radical small-scale-ness of it all, or for the chance to experience the setlist fresh and without spoilers, beyond a handful of picks that Young himself had already revealed in a chat. Maybe the biggest benefit of seeing the show at the Ford, though, probably unwittingly for most ticket-buyers, is getting the chance to feel like a fairie sprite who has just happened upon Neil Young in the woods. (Woods that have palm trees, yes, but close enough.) His candlelit setup — three pianos, a pump organ, acoustic and electric guitars, a painted stove, an operating model trainset and a lit-up “LOVE” sign — felt like a living room that had been dragged out into the redwoods, or as close to a semi-natural setting as urban Hollywood is going to provide.

Or, as Young put it in “Prime of Life,” one of the set’s highlights, “When I hold you in my arms, I forget what’s out there.” (Including stacked parking and mass shrieks a few hundred yards away.)

Neil Young performs at the Ford amphitheater in Los Angeles, June 30, 2023
Chris Willman/Variety

Young did lie about one thing, when he was setting expectations for the tour: He strongly implied that one song in particular would not be played. “I’d rather be doing these others songs I haven’t done,” he told fans in his website chat. “I won’t have to compare how I’m doing ‘Heart of Gold’ to 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, 2020…” He did do “Heart of Gold,” actually, to wrap up the pre-encore portion of the show, but out of 17 songs, that was one of only three that anyone could count remotely as a hit, per se, the other two being “Ohio” and the Buffalo Springfield’s “On the Way Home.” (And even that last one barely dented any charts and hasn’t usually been a staple of Young concerts, despite its classic-rock-firmament status.) Young did kind of make a point of allowing that “Heart of Gold” was a sop to audience expectations this time around. When he went into his first encore number afterward, “Love Earth,” a song from a 2022 album he’d never done live before, he noted that it was unusual to bring up a song few would recognize for the climactic portion of a show — but indicated he felt he’d earned it, pointing out he’d “just played my biggest hit of all time.”

Things may feel different in the larger confines of the L.A. and Berkeley Greeks, Vina Robles Amphitheatre, Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena, etc., but at the Ford, no justifications for the obscure stuff were really needed, for fans dedicated enough to have obtained tickets to his first full show in four years by any means necessary.

“Heart of Gold” happened to fit in with the time-shifting lyrical and musical tenor, anyway, of a set in which only CSNY’s topical “Ohio” really felt a little like the odd-song-out. (If you think this is actually a complaint that “Ohio” got played, save your calls, letters and @’s.) The point is that, even without throwing in “Old Man,” Young has always liked to portray himself as a man out of time, or out of the generational space-time continuum, way older than his years back when he was on Sugar Mountain and maybe younger than that now. He has rarely gotten so specific with his lyrics, at length, that you could say very many of his songs are flagrant anthems for a boomer generation. But the setlist for this tour sure includes a lot of songs that live up to the promise he made in his online chat about doing “songs that apply to my life right now, and apply to everyone’s lives in this era that we’re in,” even though “some of them were written 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago, but never really played live.”

“People my age, they don’t do the things I do / They go somewhere while I run away with you,” Young sang in the opening “I’m the Ocean” — a song recorded and released with Pearl Jam 28 years ago, when he was both acknowledging his generation and setting himself apart from it. In the end, he used that tune to compare himself with the sea itself (does it get any more timeless than that?) — but also “a Cutlass Supreme” (does it get any less timeless than that?), “in the wrong lane, trying to turn against the flow.” In “My Heart,” a song from 1994’s “Sleeps With Angels” that Young was somehow performing live at the Ford for the very first time, he offered, “I gotta get somewhere, it’s not too late,” with an urgency that felt quaint, now that the “not too late” is 29 years later. Singing “When I Hold You in My Arms,” a song that he hasn’t performed since before it came out in 2002, he revived the lines “The older generation, they got somethin’ to say / But they better say it fast or get outta the way” — only it sounded (someone check me on this) like he substituted “younger” for “older.” If that was so, maybe he meant to say that even Gen X and millennials stand in danger of being old and in the way. One truly rare number, “Homefires,” recorded and performed live in the early ’80s but not released on record until the recent “Archives Vol. 2,” had Young singing, “I’m not the same man I was a while ago / I’ve learned some new things, I hope that it shows.” Afterward, he talked cryptically about “checking out some of these songs” in preparation for the tour and said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be the same.” “Neil, you’re still the same!” shouted someone in the audience. “I hardly recognize myself,” he answered back, ambiguous as to whether that might be a bad thing or a good one.

Young has always walked a line between valuing the “Old Ways” (he did name an album that) and resisting the fogeydom of some of his contemporaries. “Days That Used to Be” could have been the mascot song of this setlist, as it had him singing, “I wish that I could talk to you, and you could talk to me / ‘Cause there’s very few of us left, my friend, from the days that used to be.” Mind you, this was a song he released on “Ragged Glory” back in 1990, when he still had a lot more career in front of him than behind him.” If he thought there weren’t many soul survivors around 33 years ago, how does he feel about it now?

That may remain a bit of a mystery, as Young spent a lot of time in the show talking about specific instruments that have been a part of his life, and none talking about specific people. This was part of the show’s charm, of course — he’s so little prone to obvious sentiment that you take it where you get it from him. He sat down at a nine-foot Steinway he said he bought for $1,500 when he left L.A. 50 years ago, talking about how he didn’t realize till later that it had been in a fire and “if you reach down and touch it (inside), your hand turns black.” Ash-incrusted or not, “it’s a pretty good piano.” Was he done talking about the bargains in his life? Hardly! Sitting down at a pump organ for “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” was cause to consider that “I love playing that song on that thing. I got it in a drug store on Main Street in Redwood City for about 800 bucks. I’m a good shopper.” He even reminisced about buying a flute for $2.49 at a drug store while walking outside the studio while recording “Sleeps With Angels,” though said cheapie appeared neither on the album or in this show. As for another piano he sometimes used on stage, “I rented it in Hollywood in ’68… It’s great to see it — and it’s great to see you,” he added. Our hearts may have fluttered a bit, there in the Ford, knowing he was holding us in the same regard as one of his prized vintage keyboards.

It wasn’t immediately clear, on opening night, whether the setlist was as set in stone as the canyon walls at the rear of the stage. There was definitely puttering happening during the show, as he moved between instruments, or decided which harmonica to use, warning that the results could be and have been fatal when he chose the wrong one. “If you’re in a hurry, I feel sorry for you,” he remarked during one lull between songs. At another point, he muttered, “Oh my God. Shit,” as he tried to get his bearings for the next tune, getting a big laugh. He did not want the audience to think that anything about the show was random, though, or that requests would be taken. ““I have a list, you know. It’s very organized. I don’t know if you can tell that I’m very organized,” he assured the 1,200. But there was at least a chance of malleability in the set, evident when Young asked the crowd whether they would rather hear “Mr. Soul” or “Mother Earth.” With nearly everyone inevitably shouting for the far better-known “Mr. Soul,” Neil being Neil, he proceeded to play the other choice. (Thank goodness he did, as it afforded the opportunity to hear him play that gorgeous pump organ — something we’ve seen him have on stage and then not go near, in years past.) Fans who went Saturday night got to see him switch out two of the 17 numbers — “Mr. Soul” indeed made an appearance instead of the alternative, and “Throw Your Hatred Down” subbed for “Song X” on night 2.

If there were any murmurs, it wasn’t about the deep-tracks content of the show, but its length, with the set clocking in on opening night at 85 minutes. That can seem slender in comparison to classic rock figures like Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello who’ve trained boomers to expect career-encompassing shows clocking in at two-and-a-half to three-plus hours. But if you weren’t counting things on a dollars-per-minute basis, this felt just right, for what it was designed to be — not the deepest catalog dive ever, but a swim through mostly neglected tunes that speak directly to where Young feels he’s at now. Anyone who missed the memo and came to hear “Powderfinger” may not agree — nor may the fans who’d like to get all the obscurities from “Archives Vol. II” in their 10-disc entirety. But the concentrated selectivity of this limited-edition tour feels like a feature, not a flaw.

Let’s hope he gets to a Crazy Horse tour, eventually, too, the way he’d planned to before the pandemic kicked in. (You can read our review of one of the few tryout shows he did with that reconstituted band in 2018 here.) But when he does resume full-band touring, with whatever lineup that turns out to be, many of us who are seeing these solo shows will be feeling wistful for the time we got alone with Young.

Or almost alone; Bob Rice, the guy who brought him his guitars, did a bit of playing on two songs, contributing minimal vibraphone on “My Heart” and sitting in as a second pianist on “When I Hold You in My Arms.” The latter allowed Young to sit at that Steinway for most of the song but bring up the electric guitar he had at his side for a couple of gentle solos, on a night that was otherwise far from being about guitar heroics. Pump-organ hero? Yes, definitely. And also a more lyrical pianist than he might always be given credit for, when it came to “A Dream That Can Last,” by far the most prettily ornate song of the night.

Ending with “Four Strong Winds,” a song by fellow Canuck Ian Tyson, who died this past December, by way of “Comes a Time,” Young acknowledged the fragility of this whole artist-fandom relationship: “If the good times are all gone, and I’m bound for moving on / I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.” We could hope he ever does come back to the Ford — or, as he warmly and jestingly referred to it, “the Podunk Coliseum.” Louis Tomlinson should be so lucky as to ever play it.

Neil Young’s Night 1 setlist:

I’m the Ocean

Homefires

Burned (Buffalo Springfield song)

On the Way Home (Buffalo Springfield song)

If You Got Love

My Heart

A Dream That Can Last

Song X

Prime of Life

When I Hold You in My Arms

Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)

Ohio

Days That Used to Be

Don’t Forget Love

Heart of Gold

Encore:

Love Earth

Four Strong Winds (Ian & Sylvia song)

Young’s full west coast solo tour:

June 30 – Los Angeles, CA @ John Anson Ford (sold out)
July 2 – Los Angeles, CA @ John Anson Ford (sold out)
July 4 – Los Angeles, CA @ John Anson Ford (sold out)
July 5 – Los Angeles, CA @ John Anson Ford (sold out)
July 7 – Santa Barbara, CA @ Santa Barbara Bowl (tickets still on sale)
July 8 – Paso Robles, CA @ Vina Robles Amphitheatre (sold out)

July 10 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Greek Theatre (added show, tickets still on sale)
July 11 – San Diego, CA @ The Shell (sold out)
July 13 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Greek Theatre (sold out)
July 15 – Berkeley, CA @ The Greek (tickets still on sale)
July 17 – Bend, OR @ Hayden Homes Amphitheater (sold out)
July 18 – Ridgefield, WA @ RV Inn Style Resorts Amphitheater (tickets still on sale)
July 20 – Auburn, WA @ White River Amphitheatre (tickets still on sale)
July 23 – Napa, CA @ Oxbow RiverStage (tickets still on sale)

July 24 – Stateline, NV @ Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena at Harveys (tickets still on sale)

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