They sauntered in through the kitchen to get to the stage, just like most bands do when performing at Johnny D’s, the cozy restaurant and club in the heart of Somerville’s Davis Square. They also looked like your typical barroom band.
Except one of the guys on electric guitar, the one in the black T-shirt, jeans, and wide-brimmed hat concealing a mane of graying hair, looked familiar. Five songs into the set, Pegi Young, the band’s leader, introduced him last.
“You probably know his face,” she said of her husband of 35 years. “That would be Mr. Neil Young.”
By then, of course, she was confirming what everyone in the venue already knew but could hardly believe. Neil Young was playing unannounced at Johnny D’s, a room that holds a little more than 300 people. For perspective: His last show in Boston, with the band Crazy Horse, was in November at TD Garden, where the concert capacity is upward of 14,000 people. The Johnny D’s show Wednesday night was billed simply as Pegi Young & the Survivors, with a $10 cover.
Even with Neil on rhythm guitar, not to mention legendary Muscle Shoals sidemen such as Spooner Oldham on electric piano and Kelvin Holly on lead guitar, it was clearly Pegi’s show. In braided pigtails, a miniskirt, and cowboy boots, she swaggered through a set of country blues and rootsy rockers.
Hanging back and taking the occasional solo, Neil never stole the spotlight, and only during the encore did he tackle one of his own songs. “Neil’s gonna play a new one,” Pegi said as he debuted a midtempo rocker that began, “I wanna drive my car.” (Video footage is already on YouTube.) It was so new that Pegi remarked that they had rehearsed it on the bus: “We heard it first, you heard it second.”
It was endlessly amusing to watch Neil Young reel off guitar riffs while servers shuttled what could have been plates of fried calamari from the kitchen behind him. The show sold out, leaving a large crowd that clustered around the massive tour bus parked out front. They peered into the venue’s bare windows, no doubt wishing their camera phones had a better zoom as they snapped pictures.
Randi Millman, who books Johnny D’s, found out Neil would be part of the band just a few hours before the show began. She didn’t want to spoil the surprise, but she couldn’t help herself, either. She posted a teaser on the club’s Facebook page: “Because we have such a heart of gold, we’re telling you that you don’t want to miss tonight’s Pegi Young & the Survivors show at Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant & Music Club, which will feature a very, very special guest. Know what we’re sayin’??”
“I mean, did that just happen?,” she said after the show, speaking no doubt for the entire room.James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.