Neil Young brings ’60s nostalgia to the Bowl

Forty years following the release of Harvest and three weeks after the harvest moon, Neil Young and Crazy Horse took to the Hollywood Bowl stage as part of the group’s expansive North American “Alchemy” arena tour — its first after an eight-year hiatus. The set featured old favorites such as “Cinnamon Girl” and “The Needle and the Damage Done,” as well as fresh songs off of the October release Psychedelic Pill and the upcoming album Americana.

[Correction: A previous version of this story stated Psychedelic Pill was released in June. The album’s release date was in October.]

The Bowl proved an appropriate setting Wednesday night for the group’s exploration of its back catalogue. It was a night of unapologetic nostalgia, as Young battled 21st-century short attention spans with 10-minute, long-form grunge pieces like “Love & Only Love.” He and his group also lamented the death of the ’60s in new tunes like “Walk Like A Giant.”

The median age of the crowd was, as expected, around 40 or 50 — a mixture of Young romantics, ex-Dead Heads and those who didn’t make it to Woodstock in ’69 and hoped to recreate the experience. Young acknowledged his audience’s age with an arch “welcome back” by way of hello.

The show itself was choreographed like a journey back in time. As opening act Los Lobos left the stage to a standing ovation, a theatrical cluster of neon orange-clad construction workers and mad scientists in white swept in to prepare for Young.

Large cardboard edifices of old-fashioned luggage, which boasted the Canadian maple leaf symbol, rose to reveal three towering Fender amplifiers, sending the whole Bowl through a time machine. What sounded like an old live recording of the group then filled the arena, reached a crescendo and finally waned as Young and Horse took the stage.

Instead of grabbing for their guitars, the group lined up before a gigantic American flag to sing a brief (and somewhat baffling) national anthem — a nod to the group’s upcoming folk album, Americana.

Young and guitarist Frank Sampedro jammed masterfully together for several minutes before Young took the microphone to tell of a battle of old between love and hate in “Love & Only Love.” Young assured his audience from the start that love would always prevail, but the declaration was accompanied by an unmistakable sense of desperation.

With guitarist Sampedro in a Jimmy Hendrix T-shirt and Young handling a beat-up black Les Paul, it was clear that the band’s vision of America is now tinted with, at the very least, a degree of aged wistfulness, and, more likely, bitterness and regret.

It was therefore fitting, and hardly subtle, when Young intoned, “I used to walk like a giant on the land” while Canadian luggage loomed menacingly over the fenders, on which were projected ’60s psychedelic light sequences.

These lyrics, from the song “Walk Like a Giant,” off the upcoming release Pill, made sense of the heavy grunge sound which had marked a huge departure for Young in the ’70s when he reacted to the rise of punk. Wailing that he feels “like a leaf floating in a stream,” it seems that Young is now trying to jam his way back to the stifled power of rock.

The ghost of Hendrix-era rock truly manifested itself when the stage backdrop changed from the Crazy Horse logo to that of the 1969 Woodstock festival: a white dove perched on the neck of an acoustic guitar. For those in the crowd that wanted Woodstock Revisited, they’d surely found it here.

The problem, however, was that the performers had already seen the horrors of Altamont, a 1969 rock concert that quickly turned violent and ended with the deaths of four civilians.

Commanding an arena of adoring fans, jamming hundreds of feet below the waving spotlights, Young sang of a particular species of giant, now perhaps extinct. He sang about the kinds of giants who almost changed the world in 1969. He took his timid, well-preserved voice to a roar, attempting to whammy his way back to that day — despite Altamont, despite the Reagan years and despite the fade on the disc jacket of rock ‘n’ roll.

A postmodern baby could laugh — the sonic boom at the end of “Walk Like A Giant” sounded almost like an homage to Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge” — but Young’s invocation was unmistakable: We need the power of rock.

In a sharp change, Young went acoustic for renditions of the beloved “The Needle And The Damage Done” and “Twisted Road,” a new tune about the first time he heard Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” The latter has a new video with old footage of Dylan and the Grateful Dead.

Jokingly, Young said he was aiming to get onto the Top 40 with his finale, which turned out to be the group’s classic “My My, Hey Hey (Into The Black).” Delivering the grand thesis of his days with Crazy Horse, Young cried over his guitar, “Rock and roll can never die. … It’s better to burn out than fade away,” as he sent the crowd out of the blue and into the black of the night.

2 replies
  1. Asher
    Asher says:

    I would have to disagree with your characterization of the show as a nostalgia fest. Very few other artists of Neil Young’s age concentrate so heavily on new material, and indeed, though it was of a piece with his older classic material, it shows him to be an artist pushing forward. Additionally, Psychadelic Pill is his forthcoming album and Americana, which is an electric album, is already out; also, they walked out to the Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’.

    • Sara
      Sara says:

      Thanks for you response, Asher. I’m speaking mainly about the content and themes of his material. The nature of his new music, lyrically, is reflective. For the sake of word count I had to leave out that Young closed with “Mr. Soul,” which he performed with Buffalo Springfield at the Bowl in I believe 1967 or 68. I don’t mean to say that nostalgia is a bad thing. Young clearly hopes to reclaim 60s idealism for the 21st century and I personally think that that’s essential!
      In terms of release dates…there are several unfortunate errors (“Jimmy” Hendrix?) that are just part of the hectic editing process of a daily newspaper. But “Americana” consists of mainly folk songs, which can be performed in any style. I did conflate the before-show music selection for the sake of length; if they actually entered to “A Day In The Life,” which I do remember hearing, then that’s my mistake and should be noted.

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