Neil Young returned to the stage Saturday night for his first full concert in nearly four years, and not surprisingly, he had some misgivings to air about what’s been happening in the world since he was last in front of a live crowd.
“Oh man, we got AI out there in the audience playing my lyrics to me before I write them,” he said about halfway through his set as he spied a prompter displaying the words to his songs at the Greek Theatre. “Out of my face, will ya? Stop thinking at me.”
With the exception of a brief appearance at an old-growth logging-protest rally in Canada in February, Young, 77, had kept off the road during the pandemic, though he made plenty of noise from home about what he views as the corporate evils of Ticketmaster and Spotify. (He also released something like a dozen LPs, including several live collections from his extensive archives.) What drew him back to the stage just a few months after the death of his former bandmate David Crosby was headlining Light Up the Blues, a semiannual fundraising event organized by Stephen Stills and Stills’ wife, Kristen, to benefit the nonprofit Autism Speaks.
Also on the bill were Willie Nelson, in town ahead of next weekend’s all-star 90th birthday bash at the Hollywood Bowl; Nelson’s son Lukas and his group, Promise of the Real; Joe Walsh; Sharon Van Etten; Stephen Stills’ son Chris and 78-year-old Stills himself, who joined Young for a handful of tunes by their old bands Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
“This is complete bulls—, I can’t play the thing,” Stills joked as he tuned a banjo before “Everybody’s Wrong,” from Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 debut, and indeed the result was a little rough around the edges. But like the entire evening, the performance had a welcome and undeniable energy: raw, funny, soothing, cranky.
The show’s emotional climax was a long, searching rendition of CSN’s “Wooden Ships” — which Crosby and Stills wrote with Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane as the three sailed the Floridian seas imagining a nuclear holocaust — that brought together Stephen Stills with his son and with Crosby’s son James Raymond, both of whom were set to back Crosby on tour when he died in January.
Earlier, Graham Nash, who’d been booked for a gig Saturday near Pittsburgh, appeared on video to remember Crosby as his “best friend for almost 50 years” and to introduce an old clip of the two of them singing CSN’s “Guinnevere” with Wynton Marsalis.
Nelson, flanked by his sons Lukas and Micah, was as always a kind of musical spellbinder as he toyed with the deeply etched melodies of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life” in a nimble medley that had him picking out gloriously asymmetric guitar solos on his battered acoustic, Trigger. Walsh was as always a laugh riot as he introduced “Life’s Been Good” and “Rocky Mountain Way” — think about this man’s deftness with a riff if you haven’t for a minute — by gently lampooning the do-gooder atmosphere: “I don’t really have a campaign yet, but I’d appreciate your vote,” he said. (Walsh had dressed the rock-star part in a leather jacket and leather trousers, which only emphasized Stills’ having turned up in the baggy khakis of a Deloitte consultant.)
But Young, whose mutton chops crept out from under his train conductor’s cap, was clearly the night’s main attraction, a prestige position he repaid by opening with a string of strummy-sensitive hits — “From Hank to Hendrix,” “Comes a Time,” “Heart of Gold” and CSNY’s “Helpless,” the last of which featured Stills on piano — before Stills joined him to dig into Buffalo Springfield’s catalog.
“For What It’s Worth” rode an appealingly swampy groove and had a splintery solo by Young; “Mr. Soul” was a jagged blast of whammy-bar psychedelia. (In addition to “Everybody’s Wrong,” they also did “Bluebird” and “On the Way Home.”) The nasal whine of Young’s one-of-a-kind voice sounded unchanged by whatever rest it got during COVID; he still came on like a guy who can’t believe he has to deal with everything he’s dealing with.
Young and Stills closed the show with a tender acoustic reading of “Long May You Run,” recorded in the mid-’70s amid the privileged acrimony of one of CSNY’s many breakups. But with Crosby’s memory so close to the surface, all that seemed like the stuff of ancient history. They were singing to each other, and about each other too.