In this age of instant fame and ceaseless news cycle, the “icon” label gets tossed around with reckless abandon. As Neil Young demonstrated Tuesday night at the Paramount Theatre, he’s the real deal — a modern folk-rock legend without peer.
Through career turns spanning four decades with Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Crazy Horse; and on his own, Young’s timeless tenor has seamlessly weaved tales of love, dishonor, death and despair while often focusing on his passionate disdain for war and environmental destruction.
Tuesday night’s 90-minute, 18-song show was no exception. Young mixed examples from his thick book of classics with abundant new material. Onstage, it was Young — outfitted in white Panama hat, long white linen jacket and well-worn jeans — and his musical gear: a collection of acoustic and electric guitars, two pianos and the pipe organ that has seemingly traveled with him forever.
Young opened with three crowd-pleasers: “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue),” “Tell Me Why” and “Helpless.” From there it was on to unexplored territory: the darkly humorous “You Never Call” (“You’re up in heaven with nothing to do/the ultimate vacation with no back pain”), memorializing the recent death of a longtime friend and associate, L.A. Johnson; “Peaceful Valley,” a polemic on the costs of America’s westward expansion; a somber, compelling anti-war hymn, “Love and War,” which is every bit as good as his hurriedly produced “Living With War” album was disappointing.
The balance of the show alternated between old and new: the oft-covered Young/Crazy Horse rocker, “Down by the River” gave way to the new, comparatively unremarkable “Hitchhiker.” Young smoldered into the anti-war anthem “Ohio” as he prowled and paced across the stage. Two sweetly humble debut tracks followed: “Sign of Love” (“We both have silver hair/and a little less time/but there still are roses on the vine”) and “Leia,” played on the tinkly tuned upright piano.
Next, Young stepped up to the pipe organ as aficionados accurately anticipated “After the Gold Rush,” which Young played in a spare, calliope-like arrangement with harmonica accents, moving into another timeless number from the 1970 “After The Gold Rush” album, “I Believe In You.” A new eco-themed song, “Rumblin’,” laments global climate change and a slew of other environmental tribulations from Mother Earth’s perspective with the refrain, “I feel the rumblin’ in her ground.”
Two favorites, “Cortez the Killer” and “Cinnamon Girl,” closed the main set. Young played two encore tunes, “Old Man” from his 1972 album, “Harvest,” and a last new song, “Walk With Me,” which he closed with feedback effects and a back-and-forth swing of his Gretsch White Falcon guitar reminiscent of the pendulum on an old grandfather clock.
The symbolism of that guitar swing — the inevitable passage of time — was an unavoidable subtext throughout the show. The crowd was mostly grayish. At 64, Young — like the crowd — was as energetic and as passionate as ever, but he too is increasingly jowly and gray. He couldn’t hit the very top notes on “Down by the River,” and “Cinnamon Girl” and was tuned low to avoid any problems. Not that anyone among the respectful gathering seemed to care or even notice.