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Nashville Scene Old Ways

Neil Young reaffirms his life's work with unconventional Opry House date

By Michael McCall

APRIL 26, 1999:  During a performance of "Ambulance Blues," one of several delightful surprises during Neil Young's show at the Grand Ole Opry House last Thursday, the Canadian iconoclast emphasized the lines, "It's easy to get buried in the past/When you try to make a good thing last." Getting buried in the past is a pitfall Young has avoided better than nearly any classic-rock performer--a point he subtly but strongly conveyed with his Opry House performance. Over the course of two hours and 21 songs, the singer-songwriter steadfastly ignored his best-known radio hits in a well-plotted course that concentrated on the themes of love, family, the passage of time, and the need to nurture the land and take care of the environment.

The sold-out crowd didn't always appreciate Young's abstention from familiarity. Although adoring in their quiet attentiveness and their explosive applause, crowd members filled the between-song silence with restless exhortations and requests, shouting out familiar titles like "Powderfinger," "Heart of Gold," "Old Man," and "The Needle and the Damage Done." Despite a preshow announcement instructing the 4,400 attendees to refrain from shouting such requests, the audience reacted to Young's subdued, intimate performance by growing louder and more demanding as the night edged on.

For the most part, Young ignored the noise, grimacing on occasion but deliberately sticking to the preplanned set list that he has followed throughout his current solo tour. But when the volume of requests grew especially obnoxious, he spit back. "Man, I'm doing all of those," he said, his tone pointed and dismissive. "They're all the same anyway."

Though known as an unpredictable, inspired artist, Young clearly had an agenda. In general, he seemed intent on expanding upon the themes in such new songs as "Looking Forward," "Out of Control," "Daddy Went Walkin'," and "Slowpoke." The first two, both performed early in the show, addressed marriage as a haven that rewards commitment and faith, while the latter two celebrated the merits of maintaining a set of values and a sense of purpose amidst the bustle of the modern world.

These ideals are hallmarks of the 53-year-old Young's own life. Married to his wife Pegi for more than 20 years, and a California rancher who disappears from public view when not on tour, Young is that rare rocker who seems to have avoided the usual pitfalls of fame, choosing instead to nurture his life and career on his own terms.

Young's public identity as the dedicated husband and father and the back-to-the-land activist has surfaced only occasionally in the '90s. He started the decade making a bracing return to rough-hewn rock with his 1990 album Ragged Glory, which ranks among the most cohesive and consistently potent collections of his eclectic career. In more recent years, he has focused on guitar-heavy, feedback-saturated albums while being embraced as a heroic figure by grunge rockers and the alternative-country movement.

By cranking up the volume and the vehemence, Young has spent most of the last decade railing against both age and the ages. Along the way, he's shown young rockers that their rebellion and anger are more effective when chiseled through pointedly personal songs and dynamic, even erratic, arrangements.

But Young is more than a potent channeler of sneering social commentary; he's also an enormously capable chronicler of the human heart. He writes sensitive love songs that balance ache and desire with the comforts of commitment. He conjures private confusion with imagistic writing that is as inventive as it is dazzling, and he delves into self-examination with gutsy honesty.

It was this aspect of Young's musical persona that took the Opry House stage Thursday night. Unlike the colorfully cartoonish sets he has sometimes used as props during tours with his backing band Crazy Horse, Young this time surrounded himself with the simplest and starkest surroundings possible. He sat on a stool amid a circle of acoustic guitars, a candle flickering atop an upright piano to his right. Behind him was an ornate harmonium, to his left a grand piano. A bouquet of sage burned near the back of the stage, sending wafts of smoky fragance through the Opry House. He employed only four simple stage lights throughout the show.

He opened with "Tell Me Why," one of three songs culled from 1970's After the Gold Rush. With its evocative lines about personal choice--"Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself?/ When you're old enough to repay/But young enough to sell"--the song proved the perfect opening volley for what followed. "Looking Forward," one of the new tunes, addressed the struggle of writing songs--"trying not to use the word 'old,' " as he wryly commented in the lyrics--while speaking of his wife and enduring love.

Six songs later, as he sat somberly at the grand piano and gently coaxed out the beautiful chords to the song "Philadelphia" from the award-winning movie of the same name, his mission seemed clear: "I won't be ashamed of love," he sang, his frail, singular tenor cracking in a way that added emotion to the words.

Indeed, Young's performance managed to be both fragile and fearless--a trait that runs throughout much of his work--and it clearly focused on his own values and goals. From the pained way he remarked upon current events in "War of Man," through such tender evocations of human struggles in "Albuquerque," "Don't Let It Bring You Down," "Long May You Run," "Out on the Weekend," and "One of These Days," Young succeeded in striking a deeply reflective chord that will resonate for years in the hearts of audience members.

Other highlights included a set-closing "After the Gold Rush" performed on harmonium; "Old King," a poignant and hilarious tribute to his deceased blue-tick hound, Elvis; "Homegrown," which has evolved from an ode to weed to a protest song in support of the family farmer and organic produce; and, most memorable of all, an encore performance of "Pocahontas," slowed down to emphasize the yearning defiance of its message about the shameful treatment of Native Americans in the United States.

In the end, the show proved most noteworthy because Young sidestepped the expected hits. That's a gutsy move, especially in a world that looks upon the hits of the '60s and '70s as high-stakes commercial commodities. Can anyone imagine the Stones, the Who, or any other classic rock act putting on a concert that barely touched upon any of their best-known recordings?

That's why Neil Young deserves the heroic stature he has assumed today. He carries with him both enduring, age-old values and the original ideals of the '60s counterculture from which he emerged. That's something few people--famous or not--manage to maintain in today's world.

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