"GIVE 'em hell Neil!" someone shouted from the audience as Neil Young took a seat amid his lovingly assembled collection of not-so-gently used guitars -- each with their own story -- surrounding him like so many old friends at a campfire. And so he did.
Thursday's sold-out show at the Centennial Concert Hall was the second date on Young's week-long Honor the Treaties tour, which is raising money and awareness for Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation's legal fight against oilsands expansion. Young has wracked up his share of support and criticism for the tour, but there were only supporters in the house Thursday night. Young let the music speak for him in an intimate, solo-acoustic show that shone in its quietest, creakiest moments. With his face obscured by his now-iconic black hat, the Canadian icon reminded us just why he's one of the best songwriters the world has known. He kicked it old school in a set that spent a lot of time revisiting his commercial peak of the 1970s, playing classic after classic.
The set began strong, with From Hank to Hendrix, On the Way Home and Only Love Can Break Your Heart, his singular voice warm, raw and ragged.
Tonight's the Night and Are You Ready for the Country were bookended by two of his most heart-rending piano ballads, Love in Mind and the emotional Someday -- the latter's lyrics perfectly summing up the reason he was here: "Workin' on that great Alaska pipeline/Many men were lost in the pipe/They went to fuelin' cars/How smog might turn to stars/Someday."
He paid tribute to American protest singer Phil Ochs with a stirring cover of Changes.
Young was in good spirits, telling stories and jokes. "This guitar is from my friend Steve Stills. We were in a band. There were four of us," he deadpanned, before re-visiting 1972's Harvest with the title track and an affecting rendition of Old Man, which was given yet more gravitas by Young's now-weathered pipes. He returned to the piano for A Man Needs a Maid, which was hauntingly fleshed out by the pump organ sitting atop his piano. "A lot of people thought I was a male chauvinist pig for that one," he admitted.
Young followed that up with emotional version of his most famous protest song, Ohio, a reaction to the Kent State shootings of 1970. "Things kept happening to us, but we reacted together. There was no difference between the crowd and the people on the stage. We were all just people, living," he said, before launching into Southern Man, a song that, until his four-night stand at Carnegie Hall last week, he hadn't played live since 2005.
He moved over to the reed organ for a driving Hello Mr. Soul and Pocahontas, on which he made the night's first reference to the concert's cause, ribbing Stephen Harper towards the end. The crowd-pleasing Helpless elicited the night's first (albeit timid) singalong. (Apparently, everyone heard about what happened at Carnegie Hall.)
"Now, as a special added attraction, I'm going to do my hit. I thought I'd break it out," he deadpanned before launching into the familiar harmonica riff of main set closer Heart of Gold. He closed the show with Comes a Time and Long May You Run.
Though he left here five decades years ago, Winnipeggers still like to claim Young as one of their own. "You make us all proud, Neil," a man called out towards the end of the main set.
He spoke for every last person in that room.
Canadian jazz chanteuse Diana Krall kicked off the evening with a set of pop standards, including Cole Porter's Don't Fence Me In and Irving Berlin's How Deep is the Ocean. She drew on a few classics from the Canadian songbook as well, including a breathy rendition of Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind.