Neil Young returned to the stage Saturday night for his first full concert in nearly four years, and unsurprisingly, he had some trepidation about sharing what’s been going on in the world since he last performed in front of a live audience.
“Oh man, we have an AI over there in the audience playing my lyrics to me before I write them,” he said about midway through his set as he spotted a prompter displaying the words to his songs at the Greek Theatre. “Get out of my face, okay? Stop thinking about me.
Except for a brief appearance at a protest rally against old-growth trees in Canada in February, Young, 77, has stayed off the road during the pandemic, though he has made plenty of noise from home about what he sees as Ticketmaster’s corporate evils and Spotify. (He also released something like a dozen LPs, including several live collections from his extensive archives.) What drew him back to the stage just a few months after the death of his former bandmate David Crosby was headlining Light Up the Blues, semi-annual fundraising event hosted by Steven Stills and Stills’ wife, Kristen, to benefit the nonprofit Autism Speaks.
Also on the bill were Willie Nelson, in town ahead of next weekend’s all-star 90th birthday bash at the Hollywood Bowl; Nelson’s son Lucas and his band, Promise of the Real; Joe Walsh; Sharon Van Etten; Stephen Stills’ son Chris and 78-year-old Stills himself joined Young for a handful of tunes from their old bands Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
“It’s utter crap – I can’t play it,” Stills joked as he tuned up the banjo before “Everybody’s Wrong,” from Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 debut, and indeed the result was a bit rough around the edges. But like the entire evening, the performance had a welcome and undeniable energy: raw, funny, comforting, whimsical.
The show’s emotional climax was a long, searching broadcast of CSN’s “Wooden Ships” — which Crosby and Stills wrote with Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner as the three sailed the Florida seas imagining a nuclear holocaust — that reunited Steven Stills with his son and Crosby’s son, James Raymond, were both scheduled to support Crosby on tour when he died in January.
Earlier, Graham Nash, who was booked for a concert Saturday near Pittsburgh, appeared on video to remember Crosby as his “best friend of almost 50 years” and to introduce an old clip of the two singing ” Guinnevere’ on CSN with Wynton Marsalis.
Nelson, flanked by his sons Lucas and Micah, was something of a musical mesmerizer as always as he toyed with the deep-rooted melodies of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life” in a nimble medley that captivated him choosing gorgeous asymmetrical guitar solos on his battered acoustic, Trigger. Walsh, as always, drew laughs as he introduced “Life’s Been Good” and “Rocky Mountain Way” — think about this man’s riff prowess if you haven’t for a minute — gently bracing the do-gooder vibe: “I don’t have a campaign yet , but I’d love for you to vote,” he said. (Walsh was dressed as the rock star in a leather jacket and leather pants, which only emphasized that Stills showed up in baggy Deloitte consultant khakis.)
But Young, his mutton chops peeking out from under his conductor’s cap, was clearly the evening’s main attraction, a prestigious position he paid off by launching into a string of soulful hits — “From Hank to Hendrix,” “Comes a Time, ” Heart of Gold” and CSNY’s “Helpless,” the latter of which featured Stills on piano—before Stills joined him to delve into Buffalo Springfield’s catalog.
“For What It’s Worth” had an attractively swampy groove and featured a scrappy solo from Young; “Mr. Soul” was a jagged blast of psychedelia. (In addition to “Everybody’s Wrong,” they also did “Bluebird” and “On the Way Home.”) The nasal whine of Young’s one-of-a-kind voice sounded unchanged from the break he had during COVID, he was still acting like someone who can’t believe he has to deal with everything he’s facing.
Young and Stills closed the show with a tender acoustic reading of “Long May You Run,” recorded in the mid-’70s amid the privileged ferocity of one of CSNY’s many breakups. But with Crosby’s memory so close to the surface, it all seemed like the stuff of ancient history. They sang to and for each other.