Published Nov 12, 2012As stage techs in lab coats and silver wigs ransacked the stage with tools and clipboards in a logical fashion, they made a spectacle of overstating gestures, placing mics, tuning guitars and trying to figure out how to remove some novelty-sized road cases. Mock construction workers joined the lab coats as "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles played and the cases cranked to the ceiling, revealing massive Fender amps. A giant mic descended from the ceiling, landing centre stage for the song's crescendo. As Neil Young and his longtime collaborators Crazy Horse appeared, a giant Canadian flag unfurled and the national anthem started up, the crowd rising to its feet to sing "O Canada" with the spirit of Remembrance Day in its heart. This theatrical start foreshadowed the epic evening to follow.
Young has never been one to rest on tired formulas — something that became obvious instantly and thoroughly as the Canadian flag was replaced by the Neil Young & Crazy Horse logo and they launched into a raw 20-minute version of "Love and Only Love" from 1990's Ragged Glory. After live staple "Powderfinger" from 1979's Rust Never Sleeps, Young finally addressed the crowd with a quick thanks before moving into "Born in Ontario" and "Walk Like a Giant" from the group's recent Psychedelic Pill. Obviously, the newer material went over well as a bra flew onstage before "Born in Ontario" was half-finished.
In the lengthy "Walk Like a Giant," Young whistled dead-focused on the mic like a eagle tracking its prey, prowling the stage with his black Gibson as he closed in on the kill. The jam's Swans-like noise-dirge denouement had some of the older demographic scratching their heads and shrugging, unable to come to terms with the onslaught, but the doom became corporeal as newspapers and plastic bags were blown across the stage by an oncoming storm.
The stage crew dressed in yellow raincoats scurried about as the Woodstock bird-guitar symbol replaced band logo and rain was projected across it, the famed "no rain" stage banter from the generation-defining festival's soundtrack playing on. As the storm subsided, Young appeared solo with acoustic guitar to sing the gut-wrenching Harvest classic "The Needle and the Damage Done" followed by the new, sentimental "Twisted Road." Then, as Young moved behind a beat-up piano, he sang the touching, as-yet-unreleased "Singer Without a Song" while a bohemian girl holding a guitar case wandered the stage forlornly, completing the effect.
Granted, they would go on to play more recognizable numbers like "Cinnamon Girl" and Buffalo Springfield hit "Mr. Soul," but there was so much more to this show than mere nostalgia, as it brought a thoughtful balance between the classic and contemporary, between big and small moments. Scenes like the bohemian girl and the absurd stage-crew antics gave the show a compelling narrative, making it grand enough to fill a modern stadium while the performance was personal and human enough to resonate.
Young channels his hurricane force across his catalogue, hammering old times into submission and continually finding ways to push himself with his new material. He sings with a passion held so deeply in his core that it could be confused for a grimace on his face.
Though this was the eve of his 67th birthday — a fact acknowledged by the singing of "Happy Birthday" after midnight — Young remains a beast in jeans and flannel, and Crazy Horse were essentially there to give the beast something to play with. Young's banter remained short but sweet, though he pulled the lights up to make eye contact from one side of the arena to the other during "Cinnamon Girl" and call people out during "Fuckin' Up," choosing instead to put most of his energy into over two straight hours of thoroughly convincing rock. He may be a hall of fame legend, but his unfettered passion is precisely why he remains as relevant today as ever.