By Richard Bienstock
A T-shirt for sale at shows on Neil Young’s Twisted Road tour shows a line drawing of the artist next to a caption bubble that reads “I said solo… They said acoustic.”
And indeed, on Sunday night at New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Young was in solo, but hardly acoustic, mode.
Rather, he veered, or, more literally, sometimes wandered between a variety of instruments. The evening kicked off with Young, seated centerstage with the weathered Martin D-28 he calls Hank, rolling through three of his Seventies classics, “Hey Hey, My My,” “Tell Me Why,” and “Helpless,” and ended with him strapping on, alternately, an early Sixties Gretsch White Falcon and Old Black, his modified 1953 Les Paul goldtop, to blast out incendiary, distortion-soaked solo electric versions of some of his most beloved songs.
In between, he moved from upright piano (the unreleased “Leia”) to grand piano (“I Believe in You”) to pipe organ (“After the Gold Rush”).
But the meat of the show drew primarily from the solo electric guitar excursions showcased on Young’s 2010 effort, the Daniel Lanois-produced Le Noise. Onstage, songs like “Hitchhiker,” “Sign of Love” and the aforementioned “Walk With Me,” undulated with waves of distorted sound, with Young employing a range of effects, as well as Old Black’s Bigsby tremolo, to shape and manipulate the thick, bassy tones emanating from a quartet of vintage Fender combo amps.
Thrillingly, he recast some of his classic songs, including “Down By the River,” “Cortez the Killer” and “Cinnamon Girl,” in a similar manner. Witnessing these iconic electric guitar riffs detached from their standard rhythm accompaniments revealed the unique and brilliant approach at the heart of Young’s playing; it was, despite the layers of distortion, the sound of an artist laid bare.
Here, Guitar Aficionado presents a Twisted Road playlist:
“Tell Me Why”
(After the Gold Rush, 1970)
The country-influenced picking pattern that fuels this opening cut from After the Gold Rush is Young at his acoustic best. On the album version Young and E Street ace Nils Lofgren play in acoustic tandem, though solo versions throughout the years, on which Young often adds in modified lead/rhythm accompaniment, demonstrates his finesse and agility as a picker.
“Cortez the Killer”
A mammoth construction in any incarnation, this seven-minute-plus Zuma classic takes on extra resonance in the solo electric setting. At Avery Fisher Hall, Young unleashed shards of resonant sound from Old Black, slapping his hand against the strings just above the pickups for quick blasts of noise, and wrenching notes up and down through continual manipulation of the guitar’s Bigsby.
(Le Noise, 2010)
The centerpiece of Young’s recent Le Noise, “Hitchhiker” features some of Young’s most aggressive and corrosive playing in years, down to the slightly metallic-sounding central riff. Lyrically, the song is a journey through Young’s past and present, with his words carried along on surges of distortion and embellished noise.
“Down By the River”
(Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, 1969)
Separated from its famous Crazy Horse-originated rhythm foundation, Young in solo electric mode plays with tone and attack to add dynamic range to this Everybody Knows This is Nowhere classic. Onstage at Avery Fisher Hall, he kept Old Black’s tone muted and bass-heavy on the verses, and unleashed trebly, piercing tones as he howled the song’s title phrase in the chorus. Whether played electric, acoustic, solo or with band, a highlight of this, or any, Young set.