After Neil Young’s much-lauded solo acoustic tour in the earlier months of this year – his first in over a decade – fans across the country knew that if the 68-year-old legend announced one of these performances in their cities, it was an affair not to be missed. In October, Young embarked on a brief four-night jaunt with two nights at Boston’s Wang Theatre and two nights at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, giving a few thousand more fans the opportunity to experience the magic of this unforgettable show.
The Academy of Music, which was the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra for over a hundred years, is a spectacular room, with the grandeur of its interior surpassed only by its powerful acoustics. As the lights went down, Young casually wandered onto the stage and sat in the middle of a semi-circle of nearly 10 acoustic guitars, picked one up and launched into the Harvest Moon track “From Hank to Hendrix.” The lyrics in that song, “Here I am with this old guitar, doing what I do,” best encapsulated what the evening would be all about, as Young only deviated from his guitars for stints on a grand piano or organ over the course of the two-set, 22-song performance.
Dressed in jeans and an unbuttoned flannel over a T-shirt, Young was a humorous juxtaposition to the stately columns and gold statues of the Academy, and his laidback banter with the sold-out crowd made for a particularly intimate experience. While the musician engaged in some back-and-forth with members of the audience in between songs (including announcing that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young would “never again” perform) everyone was held in rapt attention during the music, and those who dared to speak were quickly hushed. After the opening number, Young moved into the Buffalo Springfield song “On the Way Home” and the After the Gold Rush classic “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” The fourth song was “I’m Glad I Found You,” off of his upcoming studio album Storytone, and it meshed well with the more retrospective material. On his live outings in recent years, Young’s new songs have clashed with his older work at times, but that was fortunately not the case with the four Storytone tracks presented on this night (especially “Plastic Flowers,” the best of the batch, which sounded like a descendent of “After the Gold Rush”). Young also performed two songs from his other album of 2014, the covers compilation A Letter Home, delivering enjoyable renditions of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” on organ and Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” on acoustic guitar. The majority of the show consisted of material released before 1980, with Tonight’s the Night’s “Mellow My Mind” and Harvest’s title track and the set-closing “Old Man” among the most satisfying songs of the evening’s first portion.
The second set opened with Rust Never Sleeps’ “Pocahontas,” with Young changing the lyrics to “Barack Obama, Pocahontas and me.” In between songs, he expressed how “pissed off” he was with the president for his recent decision to allow fracking in the Gulf of Mexico. Young continued the environmental theme near the end of the show, playing his new climate change anthem “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” followed by an older Crazy Horse number, “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem).” “A Man Needs a Maid” was another memorable song of the night, as Young’s organ blasts replaced the orchestral parts of the studio version and created a stirring new version. He also took the time to tell the audience that people read too much into the song, and that he simply saw two words in a hotel room, “man” and “maid,” and headed straight for the piano. Later in the set, the political numbers “Ohio” and “Southern Man” proved to be other standouts of the evening, and seemed to carry just as much significance as they did when they were first released. The lovely “Harvest Moon” and the piano-led crowd favorite “After the Gold Rush” ended the night, before Young returned for another Rust Never Sleeps song for the encore, “Thrasher.”
Young’s voice has barely roughened with age, and his vocal delivery is still a highlight of his live shows. The stripped-down, bare-bones instrumentation showcased Young’s stunning and thought-provoking lyrics, as well as the lasting relevance and importance of his music. The show was simply captivating from the first note to the last, and more than a few people in the crowd walked out of the Academy in complete awe of what they had just seen.