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May 2, 2011

A Night to Remember:
Hearing Neil Young on the Night They Cut bin Laden Down

In a crowd of people slowly ambling out of the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., after Neil Young's solo show Sunday, a young man ahead of me turned to his friend and said, "My wife just texted....she says they killed bin Laden. The U.S. military." Many of us nearby reached reflexively for phones, wanting some sort of "official" confirmation right then, with the colossal guitar-chord fantasias of "Cortez the Killer" (!) and "Cinnamon Girl" still ringing in our ears.

It was an interesting juxtaposition. First there was electric jubilation at the news that the long international hunt for the terrorist mastermind had ended. But right behind it was a kind of awed respect for the military's discipline and obsessive attention to detail that was necessary to sustain the mission through years of errant leads and fruitless chases down blind alleys. In a way, those in Young's audience might have been a bit more attuned to this aspect: We'd just encountered, at hair-raisingly close range, some fruits of the guitarist's obsessive career-long quest for absolute (though crucially not "pure") guitar tone.

Young has always been a stickler for sounds -- even when strumming an ordinary acoustic, he finds tonal colors and emphasis points that are uniquely his. This tour, which has thus far followed the same set list each night, is in part about exploring the limits of what one man can do with one guitar -- he's got some killer instruments, and a rig that transforms the bass notes into a massive almost orchestral sound that made the Tower floor vibrate. Young conjured swirling sometimes hyperactive drones and sharply serrated chords that threw fresh shadows over tunes his audience has loved for decades. He let acoustic guitar strums hang in the air and then shifted just a single note in a chord -- and this one change turned what had been a placid scene into a sudden storm. He tried to explain why he returns to love and war as song topics, and the words seemed vague and feeble when compared with the between-verses gales of guitar elaboration, which visited specific emotional zones that defy language. The lyrics of that one were nursery-rhyme simple, the instrumental pursuit closer to Coltrane.

Young is not any kind of technical wizard -- he's more a guitar savant, a tinkerer who, through years of trial and error, has discovered some very cool things about shading and mutating the instrument's tone. While he gets (and deserves) lots of credit for taking bold conceptual leaps from album to album, I'd argue that an equally significant aspect of Neil Young's enterprise -- and a primary reason why, even before the bin Laden news, last night's show was so completely memorable -- is his enduring obsession with sound. You couldn't escape it, this mile-wide tone oozing between the cracks of "Helpless." If you listened carefully, it registered as a motivating or animating force, consuming and somehow heroic, organizing every gesture into something focused and coherent. Hearing Young alone offered the chance to appreciate precisely the role obsession plays in the creative process, and how a quest that begins with the most fundamental building block of music, tone, can wind up informing -- and illuminating -- everything around it.

May 2, 2011 10:10 AM | | Comments (0)

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