Young's high-concept evening unorthodox, inspired


June 19, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Artistically speaking, Neil Young has always been a pervert, shocking and challenging his listeners, and confounding their expectations at nearly every turn.

When tickets went on sale for his current arena tour with Crazy Horse--at the steep price of $85 plus service charges for the best seats in the house--fans assumed that they'd be treated to a hard-rocking greatest-hits show.

Many of them only discovered upon arriving at the United Center on Tuesday night that Young would be limiting the familiar songs to three tunes during the encore and playing the two-hour entirety of "Greendale," a new album that won't be released until August.

Advance word did not bode well. Young's onstage descriptions of the concept album's complicated story and the information available on his Web site ( trace a tale as inscrutable as the Who's "Tommy" or "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" by Genesis. And reviews across the country have been dismissive to downright scathing.

But damned if the crotchety 57-year-old legend didn't pull it off in Chicago.

To be sure, there were problems with the elaborate stage show. As Young performed the 10 songs from the album, some three dozen actors and dancers pranced across the stage (which was adorned with theatrical sets that looked as if they came from a high school production), ludicrously pantomiming the lyrics as the star sang, and even mimicking his harmonica playing.

"Greendale" has something to do with the denizens of a small burg in Anywhere, America--folks with names like Jed, Grandpa, Earth Brown and Sun Green. Satan makes an appearance as well (and, as usual, he steals the show).

Young's version of "Our Town" finds these characters getting involved in a cop killing and eco-terrorism. Familiar themes are intertwined in a thoroughly disjointed way (the singer rails against the intrusive media and big business and lauds the noble Everyman), and it all ends with the entire cast filling the stage and flashing peace signs.

There is, of course, a political subtext, but Young's politics have always been as twisted as his artistic visions. This is the man who railed against the 1970 killings at Kent State but told us that "even Richard Nixon has got soul," and who savaged the first George Bush in "Rockin' in the Free World" but endorsed his predecessor, Ronald Reagan.

In a song called "Leave the Driving," Young disparaged the loss of personal liberties in America while flashing images of Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft on the giant video screen. Later, he projected a Clear Channel billboard with the sarcastic message "Support Our War," seemingly oblivious to the contradiction that the giant media company is promoting his tour (and tripling his ticket prices) and will likely keep his new political music off the national airwaves.

The lines that seemed to sum up the core message of "Greendale" came from a refrain in the first song, "Falling From Above," and they confirmed that Young is still a true-blue hippie at heart: "A little love and affection/ In everything you do/Will make the world a better place/With or without you."

I have no doubt that Hedy Weiss, my colleague on the theater desk, would savage this muddled mess as a theater production. Frankly, "Hair" made a heck of a lot more sense, and it had the added attraction of people getting naked. But my concern is the music, and the fact is Young has rarely sounded so fresh and inspired.

Songs such as "Devil's Side-walk," "Double E" and "Be the Rain" leisurely evolved through several hook-filled movements, each driven by Crazy Horse's undeniable groove (drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot remain one of rock's greatest rhythm sections). The songs were aided by Young's ear for turning the way real people talk into poetic lyrics and enhanced by his fluid, dirty-yet-melodic guitar playing.

Crazy Horse's second guitarist, Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, was sadly wasted during the "Greendale" material, relegated to sitting at a small upright piano that was inaudible throughout the set. But he strapped on his trusty Les Paul for the encore, and he and Young blazed their way through fiery versions of the Crazy Horse classics "Powderfinger," "Down by the River" and "Rockin' in the Free World."

The packed crowd at the United Center clearly loved this material best, but they also cheered loudly and enthusiastically for the "Greendale" songs. Greeted with skepticism elsewhere on the tour, Young seemed pleasantly surprised by Chicago's willingness to indulge him. He thanked the crowd effusively several times, and repaid their loyalty with a performance that grew in passion and intensity throughout the night.

Casual listeners who paid to hear "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Cinnamon Girl" might have been disappointed. But diehards--those of us who not only accept but applaud perversity--saw an uncompromising artist with the courage to follow his muse without concern for the demands of fans or the industry. And we can now say we witnessed a Neil Young show unlike any he's ever performed.