Seeing Neil Young for the first time is not so different from having a life-threatening experience: It makes you reflect; it makes you appreciate; it makes you feel, quite simply, human. This past Monday, at the sold-out 3,000-capacity Keller Auditorium, I was humbled. And I am thankful.
Fans young and old swarm the theater. Columbia Sportswear-wearing, Hawthorne-style liberals discuss Bruce Springsteen's recent anti-war album, Magic ; overly tan, wrinkled women bare their cleavage and let their hair down; stoners light up in the bathroom, causing ex-hippie parental types to say, "Smell that dope?"; fringe abounds. An intercom voice announces that the show will start in three minutes. Young's wife, Pegi, appears on the stage and opens with a set of pleasantly ho-hum country tunes made more palatable by members of Young's band—including awesome bassist Rick Rosas and string- and key-everyman Ben Keith.
During Pegi's set, my showgoing neighbors find their seats: One is a fellow reporter who makes it known to everyone within a three-seat radius that he's there to review the show; the other, a thin young man resembling That '70s Show 's Forman, just nabbed himself a 12th-row ticket from a scalper. He claps before anything happens; he laughs loudly at every joke; the buddy he shares his seat with is the first to stand up for rockers like "Cinnamon Girl" and "Like a Hurricane"; he says, "Yeah! I can't believe it" to himself before the show even starts because he's so happy to be there.
Then it truly begins: Young—whose set includes classics like "Heart of Gold," "After the Gold Rush" and an excellent rendition of "A Man Needs a Maid," as well as new, 10-plus-minute rocker "No Hidden Path" (on which Young plays the electric with his entire being, not unlike a dog that's so excited its entire body wags)—appears, wispy-gray-haired and donning a casual suit, and sets right into "From Hank to Hendrix." He sits, nestled in guitars like a bee among a tulip's petals, and his odd, high-pitched voice pierces the air. Someone yells, "How ya doin'?!" Young laughs, saying it's a favorite line of his own (in fact, one he repeats throughout the night); he replies in earnest, "pretty good." The young man next to me claps incessantly and hoots in praise; the journalist opens his notebook to look at recent set lists, jotting notes and using his cell-phone light to see.
Young launches directly into "Ambulance Blues," and the oft-standing crowd roars with approval. It's during this song that the clarity starts to bear down on me. I'm distracted by the guys next to me; I'm struggling to take notes in the dark; I'm not paying nearly enough attention because I'm too damn worried about how to write about a legend. Then the flashing cell phone and hoots give way to a clear, beautiful silence. From it, Young's words call to me: "So all you critics sit alone/ You're no better than me," he sings. His knees jiggle about with rhythm, and every word he utters has such gravity you'd never know he'd sung them thousands of times before. I set my pen and paper down. And I listen.