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New York Times Review of NYC Show

April 25, 2011

Strumming Solo, With the Reverb of a Full Band
By BEN RATLIFF

“I feel a rumblin’ in her ground,” Neil Young sang, alone onstage at Avery Fisher Hall, playing his Gretsch White Falcon, sounding the low notes of a strummed chord, muting them a little with the heel of his hand. The song was generally about planet earth but could have been specifically about where he stood. As he struck those low notes, the metal fixtures in the room talked back: the exit signs, the lighting plates and possibly the balcony railings all rattled like rivets in a cymbal.

Mr. Young has done solo tours before. They usually involve acoustic guitars, beat-up pianos and contemplative looks at his instruments between songs. They’re fine. But his current tour connects to a recent record, “Le Noise,” which makes songwriting  secondary to sound.

He played new and old songs on Sunday, including several from his work with Crazy Horse, his electric band. He got into it by degrees. First, a few plain acoustic-guitar songs, straight into the microphone: “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black),” “Tell Me Why.” Then a few on an acoustic with pickup, using amplifiers: “You Never Call” — new and unreleased, a minor-key complaint to someone in heaven — and “Love and War.”

And then the full effect. It wasn’t much to look at. He switched off between his usual instruments, the White Falcon and a black Gibson Les Paul, through two Fender deluxe amplifiers. Playing “Down by the River,” he flipped his guitar’s selector switch up and down between verses and choruses. Occasionally he hit a pedal to engage a slow and subtle phase effect. That was all, or at least all you could see.

The reverb — in the amplifiers, not in the room — took on an extraordinary quality, as if the implied space in the music became a little more real. The sound seemed giant-size but not painful: it didn’t fire at you, it enveloped you. Mr. Young’s shows generally suggest sophisticated thinking about frequencies and pain thresholds, but this was something else again.

There were keyboard instruments onstage, too: worn spinet and baby-grand pianos, and a pump organ. Presumably, he’s carrying them around the country; he played them for one song each. (At the spinet, he performed a plinky new song, “Leia,” about adults watching a child playing: “Captured falling leaves from the branches of the music tree/She’s a baby with a drum making music that the soul can see.”) These were pauses between deep draughts of guitar, where the concert’s action lay.

Mr. Young is 65 now, and his newer songs reference loss and age and the endurance of love. But they also reference war and natural disaster. He’s not a wistful old man; he’s tense and obdurate even in the presence of pleasant or affirming words. Singing the first lines of “Sign of Love,” presumably written for his wife — “When we go for a
little walk/out on the land/When we’re just walkin’ and holdin’ hands/You can take it as a sign of love” — he bared his teeth and looked ready to bite.

The Les Paul’s dark, fat, mattelike sound felt doomed out and righteous, to be admired from afar, but the Gretsch’s was something you’d want to take home and live with: brighter, more expressive, more fluent with its feedback. (He shook the Gretsch, holding it by the headstock and swinging it near the amplifier, toward the end of “Walk With Me,” his encore.) Even alone, Mr. Young played all his songs at their regular, unnervingly slouchy tempos, with his bizarre articulation of picking and strumming. And even for the Crazy Horse songs, no Crazy Horse was needed. It has often been said that Neil Young’s work boils down to a guy alone with his guitar. Usually in that formulation the guitar is acoustic. I think that formulation may
be wrong.

 

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