The Scene: When I walked into the Denver Convention Center, home of the Wells Fargo Theater the prophetic words that Neil Young first sang in 1979 immediately came to mind. That mantra, as it has become to many, “it’s better to burn out, than to fade away,” has followed Young throughout his career but upon gazing on the absolutely characterless atrium out side the theater I began to wonder if this legend was fading away or more accurately, becoming someone very different from the man who wrote those words so many years ago.
I have been fortunate enough to see Young several times in my life at some great venues including Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado and The Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Upstate, New York. In each instance, before Young even took the stage, there was an electricity in the air that was completely missing at The Wells Fargo Theater. Several things contributed to this, the sterile atmosphere, the inescapable truth of the fact that it was a Monday night, the fact that absolutely no drinks at all were allowed into the theater and the militant way in which the heavy solid doors to the theater were guarded during the songs to prevent anyone from entering the hall until there was a break in the music. Suffice it to say that The Wells Fargo Theater and its incredibly strict policies sucked the rock show energy from the crowd before they even took their seats.
Neil Young: At the stroke of 8:30 Young walked out onto the stage to a standing ovation and I was able to catch a glimpse of him before an usher secured the doors, turned around and had the unenviable job of telling about 40 hardcore Neil Young fans who had shelled out between $80 and $150 dollars per seat that they had to wait in the lobby while Young opened the show with the Harvest Moon gem “From Hank to Hendrix.”
As the last muffled notes passed through the heavy doors we were finally allowed to enter the cavernous room. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw that there in the center of a tremendous stage sat Neil Young flanked by a semi circle of acoustic instruments. Dressed in a slightly rumpled light colored suit he was returning one guitar to its stand and reaching for another as we latecomers struggled to find out seats.
As we got settled and the crowd quieted, Young began a foray into the 70’s, that lasted for nearly an hour, by delicately picking out the melancholy introduction to the 1974 classic “Ambulance Blues,” from his legendary On The Beach Album. The line “you’re all just pissing in the wind” drew one of the most enthusiastic reactions of the entire evening from the attentive crowd. The diehards in the crowd were then treated to “Sad Movies,” the first of three unreleased songs from his prolific 70’s sessions that Young would play on the evening.
He then picked himself up out of his chair and purposefully walked over to a grand piano that occupied a spot on the right side of the stage. On top of the piano sat a synthesizer and Young utilized both in a rare and haunting performance of “A Man Needs a Maid,” from 1972’s Harvest.
As Young moved through the acoustic portion of the evening, he took occasional pulls on a beer bottle and ran through Harvest, Love Is A Rose, and several other, more obscure, selections.
The highlight of the hour-long set came about 40 minutes in when Young took the stool at the upright piano for a truly moving version of the sparse and tender “After The Goldrush.” He was in top voice and the passion that seeped through the performance proved yet again that this is a man who has no intention of fading away. He tipped his hat to the state of the world today, and got a huge reaction, when he adapted the line “look at Mother Nature on the run in 1970’s” to “look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century.”
Young then returned to center stage and surprised everyone when he aborted “Love Art Blues,” a few bars in, choosing instead to pluck out “Mellow My Mind,” on the banjo saying “I’ll get to that one a little later.” A little later proved to only be about 5 minutes when Young played the song uninterrupted as the next selection before the country blues of “Love Is a Rose,” picked up the mood a bit.
Young chose to close the set out with the massive crossover hit “Heart of Gold.” While it is a song that has truly stood the test of time and a great choice for a closer, the moment that made the most lasting impression on me was the way his high tenor seemed to transport me back in time as he sang of the archer splitting the tree during “After The Goldrush.” When the last notes of “Heart Of Gold” had faded away, Young stood up, waved to the crowd and headed into the wings of the stage to gather himself and his band for the electric portion of the evening.
After a brief break, Young took the stage with long time friends Ben Keith, Rick Rosas, and Ralph Molina, on guitar, bass and drums respectively. The old friends brought the crowd to their feet when they launched headlong into “The Loner.” The crowd remained standing as a painter who was working in the back replaced a canvas on the right edge of the stage that had the words “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” paired with a abstract scene. The painter worked as the band played, and replaced the canvases on the easel before each song as a way of introducing them without words.
In sharp contrast to the song selection of the acoustic set, the electric set introduced the audience to several songs from Young’s recent Chrome Dreams II. The band raged through “Dirty Old Man,” and “Spirit Road, early in the set before returning to the 70’s for a trio of songs that shared the central theme of abandonment and loneliness; “Bad Fog of Loneliness,” “Winterlong, and “Oh, Lonesome Me.”
The band closed out the set with two more songs from Chrome Dreams II. “The Believer” and the 15 minutes of trademark ragged glory that is “No Hidden Path” again brought the audience to their feet as Young stomped around the stage coaxing beautiful, distortion saturated screams from his electric guitar, proudly displaying the type of playing that earned him the moniker “Godfather of Grunge.”
When Young and his band mates returned to the stage for the encore they dipped back into the hits and brought a nostalgic smile to the face of many as they wailed on “Cinnamon Girl” and a monstrous rendition of “Like a Hurricane” that closed out the show and proved once and for all that, despite the choice of venue for Denver’s tour stops, Neil Young isn’t about to fade away and he sure doesn’t appear to be burning out just yet.
Set 1 (Acoustic):
From Hank to Hendrix, Ambulance Blues, Sad Movies, A Man Needs a Maid, No One Seems To Know, Harvest, After The Gold Rush, Mellow My Mind, Love Art Blues, Love is a Rose, Heart of Gold
Set 2 (Electric)
The Loner, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Dirty Old Man, Spirit Road, Bad Fog Of Loneliness, Winterlong, Oh, Lonesome Me, The Believer, No Hidden Path
Cinnamon Girl, Like A Hurricane