His eyes shaded by a black fedora, Neil Young strapped on a guitar that once belonged to Hank Williams Sr. and leaned in, as if ready to whisper in someone’s ear.
“Come a little bit closer, hear what I have to say,” he sang near the end of his sold-out concert Monday at the Chicago Theatre.
But even in relatively mellow acoustic mode, the singer conveyed a restless energy. He strolled the stage adorned with two pianos, a pump organ and a half-dozen acoustic guitars as if he were an avuncular landowner surveying his property. He was comfortable in this space, talking easily with the audience between songs, and at one point humorously thanking his “sponsors”: “Water,” he said, “and glass -- brought to you by sand and fire, two other great products.”
It was all in service of an evening that might have been described as casual. But beneath the rumpled outfit and graying sideburns, Young still harbors an intensity that surfaced at key points in the two-hour (plus intermission) concert. These moments were all the more striking because of the dynamics in Young’s still-pliable voice, his ability to play with tone and phrasing, and to create atmosphere with the barest essentials.
When he played it low-key, he sometimes sang barely above a whisper. Seated with his acoustic guitar, his elbows and knees typically flail in loose time with the rhythm, but this time his movements were more subdued to match the more meditative tone he brought to “From Hank to Hendrix” and his Buffalo Springfield tune “On the Way Home,” which sounded almost forlorn stripped of the studio original’s horns and counterpoint harmonies.
Eccentric touches spiked several songs during the rarities-filled first set. The early ‘70s ballad “Love in Mind” took on a jazzy, saloon feel with Young’s loose piano-playing, and he brought a ragtime rakishness to “Mellow my Mind” with its plea to “casualize your mind” in the aftermath of turmoil. “Someday,” performed at the piano complete with Keith Jarrett-like groans, conflated German generals, TV preachers and Disney fairy tales into an oblique commentary on sin, redemption and smog. Later, Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” was transformed into a growling gothic blues with harmonica and pump organ.
Young was darn near professorial offering a few history lessons. “These songs, they come from each other,” he said of his own discography, a series of links in a chain back to his inspirations: Tim Hardin, Phil Ochs and Gordon Lightfoot, whose tunes mingled with Young’s own.
History also factored in the stunning one-two combination that opened the second set. “Pocahontas” and “Cortez the Killer” played like haunted reveries, the lost soundtrack to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” Young roamed the stage as his harmonica summoned ghosts. On his protest anthem “Ohio,” he punctuated each chant of “four dead in Ohio” with a resonant thwack of the bass strings on his guitar.
“Thrasher” proved to be an apt summing up. It’s a contemplative tune with a nasty undercurrent, loosely invoking the break-up of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the mid-‘70s. "They were just dead weight to me,” Young sang. But his voice was almost tender, and troubled. “How I lost my friends, I still don’t understand.” The songs were his way of trying to piece together an answer he knows he’ll probably never find.
Neil Young set list Monday at the Chicago Theatre:
1. From Hank to Hendrix
2. On the Way Home (Buffalo Springfield)
3. Only Love Can Break Your Heart
4. Love in Mind
5. Mellow My Mind
6. Reason to Believe (Tim Hardin)
8. Changes (Phil Ochs)