I bought a new journal Tuesday. I always like the way a new journal starts out, with my handwriting at its best and the lines straight and neat, a sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga 2.5 boldly starting out on a new chapter. What better place to start again than at Red Rocks with my favorite artist (whoops! so much for objectivity) playing at everyone's favorite venue (just the facts) in the waning moments of summer?
But the neat letters of my imagination turned to chicken scratch before ever reaching the page, a series of missives scrawled out in the dark and rain between moments of ecstasy as Neil Young settled in for a historic three-night gig at Red Rocks.
Good things happen to the good people who go to watch Neil Young play at Colorado's venerable amphitheater, whether playing 30-some years ago with his first band, Buffalo Springfield, or charming the crowd with stories of his old hound Elvis on a solo acoustic tour. When Young comes to town, the dependable September weather and the waning harvest moon give way to a surreal atmosphere colored by floating mists of color and a suspended state of change as the season pauses on its pinnacle.
Driving up to Red Rocks Tuesday evening, the sunset was just barely visible through the heavy haze permeating the horizon from the Boulder fires. By the end of the night the crowd looked like they'd been transported to the set of The Perfect Storm, blissfully enduring raging sheets of rain, laughing hysterically with the assurance that they would die happy out there on the rocks.
Chrissie Hynde got the night started with a bold cover of Young's "The Loner." Over the course of her hour-long set with The Pretenders, Hynde made believers out of the audience, dancing with them and partying hard. When this tour stopped through Albuquerque a couple weeks ago, friends of mine encountered Hynde driving on the highway after the show, leaning out of the window to celebrate her birthday and flipping off my friends when they tried to correct her on the date. She showed that same fire on stage Tuesday, fearlessly seducing the audience into the legacy of her band.
Young ambled onto the stage in a Route 66 T-shirt and faded jeans and got the night grooving to "Motorcycle Momma," highlighted by the treat of his trading vocals with his sister Astrid and his wife Pegi. He then ignited the slow scorching "Powderfinger," featuring Young paddling through the heavily textured waves of guitar amplitude he paints into the aural landscape, changing the atmosphere like the ectoplasmic charge before a ghost busting, or, for the layman, like a hurricane.
It was windy from the start, long before Young and his band of unknown legends amped up the power. You'd think he would have known better than to hang a set of four backdrops up behind his stage, obscuring the rocks that already offer the best stage set imaginable. The wind righteously corrected the oversight, tearing down one piece and convincing the stage crew to take down the others while the whole lighting grid was blown back and forth, making a moving kaleidoscope out of the pattern projected on the band.
Never afraid to throw new tunes into the mix, Young introduced audiences to "Fool for Your Love," which sounds like an outtake from his rockabilly album Everybody's Rockin' and "Bad Fog of Loneliness," using Ben Keith's ironic steel guitar to hit a note of subtle musical humor behind lyrics about "That fog of loneliness/put a cloud on my single-mindedness."
"I'm actually not really still alive," Young told the crowd as he donned a fleece vest when the rain started sprinkling and the wind picked up. "I'm partly bionic now. Plugged into the sun."
Despite his Hall-of-Fame status, the set list has something of an obscurity tour nature to it, with Young passing up dozens of classics to play songs like "Peace of Mind," "I Believe in You," and "Words," reestablishing the breadth and power of material cherished by those who know it but not known enough by the fleetingly familiar fans. I never thought I'd hear "Words" live, but of all the "Heart of Golds," "Old Mans," "Needles," and "Alabamas" bursting out of Harvest, "Words" was the song I air-wailed away on when my big sister went to college and my cool quotient went up with the lights out and the volume up.
The set changed character when Young put on a straw cowboy hat for "World on a String." "It must be the altitude," he told the crowd. "Feels different up here." He added dark sunglasses barely visible beneath the hat for an overhaul of his dark classic "Tonight's the Night," setting the soulful tone he needed to turn the song from an air raid of electricity on guitar to a bluesy saloon song on the upright piano. This tour finds his rendition augmented by long-time collaborator Spooner Oldham on the keyboards and Ben Keith's screeching steel guitar. Lost behind his shades, Young rocked back and forth at the piano, grabbing the mike and pouring out his ode to fallen Crazy Horse comrades Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry. The obscurity tour rarely stopped for more than one song from any given album, but three of the last five songs of the night came off Tonight's the Night.
Neil Young's always been the musician I'd most like to sit across the campfire from, and Red Rocks can make you feel like you are out there in some back of beyond canyon keeping warm to the music in the fire glow. Young's the kind of writer who plays the songs we hear in our best dreamt soundtracks to the life we imagine we lead, getting the emotion and character that never quite makes it to the tip of our tongues. When he surrounded himself with a murderous "Cowgirl in the Sand" for an encore, the music provoked a dance out of him that caught how we all felt.
Trading back and forth between thumb and finger licks on the guitar and pick-propelled leads that seemed to cue the rain, Young had the elements working with him to attack the audience on all fronts. I've seen more than a dozen of Neil Young shows, but I've never seen a "Cowgirl" before, and the intensity and power of it nearly knocked me off my feet. It may be as close as I get to the feeling of giving birth.
As he raged away, head back, his guitar ruddering the crowd into an underwater world of the ruby in the dust, coaxing sound to transcend its bounds and find physical reality, he took the audience over the edge in a hypothermic-free zone where the wall of swirling rain caught in the white lights aimed at the crowd brought guitar leads into perfect, sublime, tangible, visible, soak-you-to-your-core perceptibility.
It was so wet and cold that the suddenly sober crowd was ready to accept the cue to leave the amphitheater when "Greensleaves" came over the PA, but the band came back, Astrid and Peggy as drenched as the crowd, to offer a final coda of "Mellow My Mind."
I used to think it was just me. It's only in the past year that I've been able to step back from the intense relationship Young's music has demanded of me to realize that he's just as piercing and illuminating to so many people who've encountered some or all of his music. May we all burn on with Neil Young's tireless intensity, constantly reigniting the passions that make us rock.