Neil Young is about to embark on one of the most grizzled and stoic phases of his career, and Houston got its first taste of it on Friday night at Jones Hall. He was loud, he was poignant and every word and note he wrung from his cast of guitars and various plinkers dripped from the walls of the concert hall.
He did all this solo, alone on the stage with a wooden Indian in one corner lording over the proceedings and countless generations of fans sitting in rapt attention in front of him. He only showed his age when his hat fell off his head showing his gray hair, and when he spoke of the mortality that is starting to surround him. We can't help but see that he is now one of the last of his breed, if he isn't one of a kind. No tweeting, texting, or Facebook-updating would be going on, per the signs in the lobby, and that made us smile.
The show wasn't a greatest-hits retrospective, and Young is not unlike Bob Dylan, both of whom can now command a sold-out crowd to hear not the same rote versions of their classics, but to actually see the gears turning on brand new material. It's refreshing to know that he has fans that won't begrudge him "Rockin' in the Free World" for a cheap thrill; he can save that for an electric tour with a shit-hot band. Houston got what Aftermath counted as at least seven new songs that have been getting road-tested now for the past few weeks of this "Twisted Road" solo tour.
Young opened with a somber "My My, Hey Hey (Out Of the Blue)" that braced everyone in their seats. What first struck Aftermath was the sound of Young's voice enveloping in the room. Iconic voices slay us, and to hear his in the same room you are breathing air was almost religious. You hear that voice on classic-rock radio and in your car or headphones at your most washed-out and morose. We compare to hearing the voice of dead relatives on video or tape after they have passed, and how it chills and warms you at the same time.
The first new song of the night was "You Never Call," a letter to friend who has deceased. As he delved into the song, we started getting echoes of the chaos in Dylan's LP Time Out Of Mind. The character left standing as everyone else takes flight into eternity and you are left wandering aimless, dealing with your own mortal ends. The next two songs, "Peaceful Valley" and "Love and War" were also still under construction.
The latter was a scorched earth look back on his life, surveying the two topics that he was trafficked in almost exclusively since his start on the same back streets of Toronto he mentioned. Young has come to the resolution that even though he speaks about both, he still doesn't know what he's saying. Artists rarely get the chance to admit in their twilight that the jury is still out the things they professed earlier in life - if they are even lucky enough to get a proper twilight.
"Down By the River" and "Ohio" both coated the crowd with feedback and noise, but still keeping the hearts of the songs intact. He continues to test the limits of distortion to this day, with his trademark Les Paul, "Old Black," still in faithful service.
For the proud granddaddy song, the syrupy "Leia," Young headed over to one of the two pianos dotting the stage, and "I Believe in You" from After the Gold Rush was offered on the pipe organ set-up stage aft. The set looked like what you would imagine a Young studio session or his private man-cave music room would look like, with the Indian, the strewn guitars, the raggedy amps, and the pianos and organ.
"Rumblin" was a scorched stunner about the changing world, and not the political or social shifts that continue unabated. It's about feeling the earth literally rumble and the clouds roll in, things we can't fix but only look on helplessly: Earthquakes, climate fluctuation, man-made oil spills and melting ice caps. He's not raging at them as much he sounds resigned to them.
The utterly monolithic tag-team of "Cortez The Killer" and "Cinnamon Girl" signaled the last few songs of the night, with Young wrenching out the tracks with a ferocity he probably hadn't injected since their initial live runs.
It takes balls to close a show (and an encore) with a new song, which Young did after returning with "Old Man." It was the ender "Walk with Me" that pretty much tore our throats out, with a lilting acoustic stagger and lines about being alone with your spouse at the dusk of your life, and just yearning for their hand in yours as you take that long walk home.
We can't describe it better than how Young sang it: "I'll never let you down no matter what we do, if you just walk with me and let me walk with you. I'm on this journey. I don't want to walk alone."