Neil Young gives his audience something special
The older Neil Young gets, the wilier he becomes. You know what to expect with most of his peers, but not with Young. At 68, he lives for the curveball. Young balances big rock records like 2012’s epic “Psychedelic Pill,” a collaboration with Crazy Horse, with more intimate affairs, including this year’s “A Letter Home,” a collection of cover songs he made in a tiny recording booth at Jack White’s Third Man Records in Nashville.
His live shows are anyone’s guess, too. He is at home in arenas as much as theaters. His last headlining gig in Boston was at TD Garden with Crazy Horse in 2012. Then Young popped up last year at Johnny D’s in Davis Square, as an unbilled guest in the band of his wife at the time, Pegi Young.
When Young came to the Citi Performing Arts Center’s Wang Theatre on Sunday, for the first of two sold-out shows there, he was still full of surprises. It was an astonishingly intimate solo performance — two hours split into two sets with an intermission — and it imparted the sensation that you’ll never see another one like it.
The stage setup was minimal: just a circle of acoustic guitars (and a banjo) framed by two pianos and a pump organ. Young sauntered onstage with a harmonica holder around his neck, his hat rumpled, his flannel shirt unbuttoned over a T-shirt. No opening act, no other musicians. Just Neil Young, and that’s all you needed.
His theater shows tend to spotlight Young the songwriter more than the rocker. In light of the recent news about his split with Pegi, his wife of 36 years, it was tempting to read between the lines. So many lyrics written long ago suddenly sounded prophetic:
“Now we’re headed for the big divorce/ California-style,” he sang on the opening “From Hank to Hendrix.”
He kept spinning heartache from “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “Love in Mind,” and “You and Me.”
But Young also seemed like he is in a good place. “I’m glad I found you” went the chorus of a tender new ballad he played on piano. On pump organ, he vamped and dug into the spooky groove of “Mr. Soul” from his Buffalo Springfield days.
Young was in a chatty mood, too, riffing on everything from his disappointment with President Obama for recently opening the Gulf of Mexico to fracking to his fond memories of a guitar that Stephen Stills had given him. “Here’s one,” he said as a preface to “Harvest Moon” as if it were just any old song. But the audience knew it was special — and that they were lucky.