More than four decades into an astounding career, Neil Young still sticks to his countercultural guns. "Love and only love will endure," the Canadian elder statesman insisted on the opening salvo of his tour-de-force performance Friday at the destined-for-demolition Wachovia Spectrum.
Two hours later, he blew unsuspecting minds with the Beatles' "A Day In the Life," relishing the opportunity to unleash a squall of feedback at the song's close, and also the chance to give voice to John Lennon's fondest wish: "I'd love to turn you on."
In between, he sat at the pump organ and decried the despoiling of the environment in "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)," and advised that "there is a long highway in your mind, a spirit road that you must find," in "Spirit Road," from last year's Chrome Dreams II. And in "Cortez the Killer," his guitar eloquently wept for the destruction of an idealized Aztec civilization by imperialist colonizers.
But if Young, 63, who sported gray sideburns and a bald patch visible when he bent to rip into another fiery solo, is an unrepentant hippie, he's always been an irascible one.
His career-spanning set included songs of almost beatific calm and childlike beauty, such as "The Needle and the Damage Done," and "Old Man," layered with meaning 36 years after it was written, and highlighted by a banjo cameo by guitar tech Larry Cragg.
And "Light A Candle," one of four new songs performed in the evening's second half, when a greatest-hits parade turned into something altogether more strange, was a hopeful prayer of a ballad: "Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle for where we're going."
But the show was dominated by epic guitar jams of unrestrained fury, with Young backed by his Electric Band, featuring his wife, Pegi, on vocals, drummer Chad Cromwell, bass player Rick Rosas, Anthony Crawford on keyboards and vocals, and the great Ben Keith on guitar and lap steel (most delectably on "Heart of Gold").
With the exception of "Like a Hurricane" and "Down By the River," all the stone-cold classics were present, including "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)," "Powderfinger," "Cinnamon Girl," and "Cowgirl in the Sand," which gave way to the fist-pumping catharsis of "Rockin' in the Free World."
Young, who wore a paint-splattered, oversized black jacket and jeans to go with his peace-sign-decorated guitar strap, got slightly cranky when the raucous crowd wouldn't shut up during his band intros. "Give me a break! I'm trying to introduce my friends," he said. And his new songs weren't only optimistic: "You can sing about change," he warned in one. "But just singin' a song won't change the world."
"I think they're going to blow this place up as soon as we're done," Young said of the Spectrum, which is set for demolition next year, and, true to its reputation, felt winningly cramped and intimate compared with the Wachovia Center across the street. He didn't, however, indulge in any nostalgia for the arena, where he first played with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in 1970. Instead, he did what he always does: fling himself headlong into the music, and the moment, while delivering one more night to remember.
Young's cathartic set was preceded by a excellent one-hour warm-up from Wilco, the six-man Chicago band fronted by raspy-voiced Jeff Tweedy. Inventive guitarist Nels Cline was the standout in a set that blended roots-rock earnestness with bursts of experimental noise in songs like "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and "Impossible Germany" that opened up into extended jams and set the table nicely for the blowout to come.