Has any classic rocker aged better than Neil Young? His massive early ’70s success may have compelled him to steer his career into the ditch, but since then he’s pretty much had the road to himself, having earned enough popular and critical cachet to switch lanes whenever he desires. At the first of two solo Boston dates on Wednesday night at the Wang Theatre, Young mostly stuck to the crowd-pleasing middle path, though his middle remains more interesting than most artists’ fringe.
The first half of the concert felt like a trip through the attics of Young’s mind, with Young himself as the wildly entertaining, if somewhat absent-minded, tour guide. He’d walk toward one of the many instruments from his personal collection spread across the stage, tell a story about its origins (it became a running joke how many guitars were gifts from Stephen Stills), then play it for a song or two. These interstitial monologues were fascinatingly bizarre, full of aimless asides and mildly humorous observations at which the worshipful crowd always laughed slightly louder than was warranted.
Each of Young’s beloved instruments seemed to bring out a different side of him musically. The first nine songs alone gave us the acoustic guitar-wielding folkie of “Pocahontas,” the plugged-in protest singer of “Ohio,” the piano balladeer of “Birds,” and the honky-tonk key-pounder of “Are You Ready for the Country?” While Young was in fine voice and spirit throughout, “Ohio” felt particularly revelatory, his hollered vocals and razor-sharp electric guitar restoring the righteous anger to a song whose edges had been dulled by overexposure.
Watching Young squirm in his seat while blowing harmonica or pace around the stage between songs, one might wonder which came first: the artistic or the physical restlessness? While that restlessness never manifested in the form of radical, Dylanesque reinventions of his classics, he did try changing the instrumentation of some old tunes. Turns out “Mellow My Mind” sounds downright happy-go-lucky on banjo, while an otherwise lovely “After the Gold Rush” felt cluttered by a few too many organ licks. A piano version of “Tonight’s the Night,” meanwhile, was somehow even more haunted than the original, as Young eulogized his friend and roadie Bruce Berry.
Though the setlist pulled almost exclusively from the ’70s, Young did devote a three-song chunk to his 2010 album “Le Noise.” With intense performances of the heavily distorted “Angry World” and the desolate “Love and War,” Young made a strong case for that record as an overlooked gem in his bountiful discography. If he lost any casual fans with that digression, the set-closing triptych of “Harvest” gems (ending with, you guessed it, “Heart of Gold”) certainly won them back. For the encore, Young strummed a ukulele and sang “Tumbleweed,” a love song to current romantic partner Daryl Hannah. It should have been unbearably cloying, but somehow it wasn’t. It just sounded like Neil being Neil, true to himself to the very end.
Fellow Canadian William Prince opened with a solo acoustic set of his own, his low, ruminative voice lending his frequently beautiful songs a lived-in gravitas.
With William Prince
At the Boch Center Wang Theatre, Wednesday nightTerence Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley