Even Neil Young, whose lyrics are generally among the most unironic in rock and roll, has to grasp the irony of singing "Old Man" from the other side of the mirror. But as he's gone from "twenty-four and there's so much more" to "look at how the time goes past," the 64-year-old's solo set at Jones Hall made a convincing case that he's not going quietly into the black. Hardly. Surrounded by a variety of guitars and keyboards, his only human company a handful of stage techs, Young cut a curious figure Friday. Lit by a single spotlight in the otherwise pitch-black and mostly sold-out hall, as he wandered from instrument to instrument between songs, he was an old man - not doddering or stumbling, but pensive, and certainly in no great rush. Once he picked up a guitar or sat down at a keyboard, or blew his harmonica like a hurricane, that image instantly vanished. Young became the wizened tribal elder, imparting his shamanic wisdom through every cutting chord and photographic lyric, whether history lesson, elegy, confession or profession of faith. "I sing about love and war," he sang on "Love and War," one of the handful of new songs in the set list. What was implied, and became clearer and clearer as the 90-minute set progressed, is how intertwined those two themes are in Young's work, how they always have been and continue to be.
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After "Ohio," played on a hollowbody electric guitar, Young's riff as cold and metallic as the barrel of a National Guardsman's rifle, came the new "Sign of Love," which was even darker and more predatory. Love will do that to you. "I Believe In You," one of three from his 1970 album After the Gold Rush, was almost whisper-like, Young seated at a grand piano and singing with an intimacy that completely canceled out that instrument's majestic modifier. Although the sentiment of "Cinnamon Girl," which closed the main set, is decidedly more cheerful than "Down By the River," its companion on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere that opened Young's electric-guitar recital about a third of the way home Friday, both came in showers of needle-like reverb that slid directly under the skin, as unsettling as they were cleansing. Earlier, the high-lonesome "Helpless" and "You Never Call," a new song that stares down the Grim Reaper in the parking lot of an In N' Out Burger, were no less goosebump-raising for being played acoustically. Young opened with the song that has been his mission statement since it was released on 1979's Rust Never Sleeps, "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)." An hour and a half of love and war later, after referencing Buffalo Springfield's "Mr. Soul" on the new electric-blues invitation "Walk With Me," he was done. For the evening, at least. The old man waved at the wildly applauding crowd a few times and wandered into the black of backstage, burning brightly for 90 minutes and leaving an impression that may never fade away. Set List My My Hey Hey Tell Me Why Helpless You Never Call Peaceful Valley Love and War Down By the River Hitchhiker Ohio Sign of Love Leia After the Gold Rush I Still Believe In You Rumblin' Cortez the Killer Cinnamon Girl Encore Old Man Walk With Me