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(Neil) Young at Heart

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Just days after turning 62, Neil Young proved to an intimate crowd at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Friday, Nov. 16, that he can still mesmerize like few other performers.

Young delivered two sets: the first a moody solo acoustic followed by an intense electric one, backed by a small but capable band featuring the sterling pedal steel/guitar/piano player Ben Keith (from "Harvest"-era), Rick Rosas on bass, Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina, and Young's wife and back-up singer, Pegi. The show covered material from throughout his career, from obscure gems to new songs off his recently released "Chrome Dreams II" album. He even ended the night with a surf-like instrumental encore, "The Sultan," which dates back to the early '60s, when he was performing with the little known band, The Squires, pre-Buffalo Springfield.

Although ticket prices were outrageous (we paid $180 a piece for the front row because we're certifiably insane), Young provided a memorable show befitting a legend of rock. Judging from the unusual song selection, it seemed that he was previewing his upcoming retrospective box set, rumored to be coming out for years now, which is supposedly landing in stores this Christmas.

The acoustic set began with a later-era tune, the down home "From Hank To Hendrix," before launching into a brilliant version of the meandering classic, "Ambulance Blues," from one of Young's finest albums, the deeply personal "On the Beach" (1974). Bolstering the song with a catchy refrain on harmonica, Young delivered choice lines that drew cheers from the crowd such as, "There ain't nothing like a friend/ who can tell you you're just pissing in the wind."

More interesting selections followed, including a haunting version of the introspective "A Man Needs a Maid," that Young played both on a white, psychedelically painted grand piano and a synthesizer -- which made the song both familiar and updated. The crowd clapped along briefly to the lovely waltzing country ballad, "Harvest," before quieting down for an intense piano version of the surreal "After The Gold Rush," long considered one of Young's most evocative tunes with its images of "burned-out basements" and "silver spaceships flying in the yellow haze of the sun."

A forlorn version of the banjo number, "Mellow My Mind," followed, with a subsequent story Young told about record executive Mo Ostin, who stood by him for the commercially unviable album "Tonight's the Night" (1975). Late in the set, he debuted a rare song, "Kansas," before closing with perennial favorite "Cowgirl in the Sand."

Young spoke few words between songs -- and strangely, later in the night, kept picking up a red "hotline" phone sitting on the drum riser, an apparent nod to his political surroundings. While there were numerous instruments on stage and artifacts from former tours (like a big wood-carved Indian totem), nothing detracted from the performers. However, there was a guy onstage who looked like Dr. John, who stayed busy painting the name of each song over a pre-painted canvas, then hanging each one on a giant easel stage left to announce each number -- a strange, carnivalesque touch that probably cut down Young's conversation with the audience, since he didn't have to name any songs. Young can be a fairly funny guy, so this was not a good thing.

Sadly, the crowd in this historic hall remained seated throughout the show, even as Young jumped around and stalked the stage, swaying like an old drunk as he ripped a number of savagely beautiful, distorted guitar solos from his vintage Les Paul, "Old Black." There were flawless renditions of the grooving country rock "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere," plus an upbeat take on "Bad Fog of Loneliness" (more powerful as a solo acoustic song), as well as the brooding Don Gibson country ballad, "Oh, Lonesome Me" from Young's essential album, "After The Gold Rush." Everything came off without a hitch, the performers all looking comfortable in mid-tour form. The only dud was the boring new song, "Dirty Old Man," a grungy, two-chord rocker with tedious lyrics.

One of night's greatest moments came during a new song, "No Hidden Path," that seems destined to become a Young classic. As the song wore on, Young alternated verses with guitar solos, eventually kicking over his mic stand while soloing out of control. As someone who tires from extended jams, I was impressed that Young's searing, unpredictable playing never grew boring, partly because of the physicality with which he performs, wrestling his guitar, strangling the notes out. He's one of the spaciest guitar players around and this song felt more like a musical exorcism of sorts -- wrenching and pure.

The sedate crowd of mostly baby boomers and older folk finally stood up and danced during one of the closing numbers, the FM radio staple, "Cinnamon Girl," which Young and crew nailed with the reckless abandon of a young garage rock band, as if the song had just been released yesterday.

For the encore, he returned to the stage and sat at the piano for a jittery, intense version of "Tonight's The Night," an ode to dead roadie Bruce Berry, before the final song, "The Sultan." For the last number, a bearded guy dressed as a Sultan, with inebriated eyes glittering like shards of wet glass, stood before us banging a large gong (somewhat) on time with the music, though missing his opening cue. The raggedness didn't matter. It's part of Young's overall charm, that and a long career of heart achingly pretty songs that seem to come from the deepest part of him as an artist -- songs his audience still clearly adores, even 30 and 40 years later.

Young's wife Pegi opened the show with a warm set of mellow folk music before the half-full hall, later joining her husband on stage to sing back-up vocals for several of his songs.



FIRST SET:

From Hank To Hendrix / Ambulance Blues / Sad Movies / A Man Needs A Maid / Try / No One Seems To Know / Harvest / After The Gold Rush / Mellow My Mind / Love Art Blues / Kansas / Cowgirl In The Sand

SECOND SET:

The Loner / Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere / Dirty Old Man / Spirit Road / Bad Fog Of Loneliness / Winterlong / Oh, Lonesome Me / The Believer / No Hidden Path // Cinnamon Girl / Tonight's The Night / The Sultan

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