WINNIPEG — "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 (ACFM)’s legal fight against oilsands expansion. Young has wracked up his share of support and criticism for the tour; at a press conference at the Concert Hall earlier in the day, he reiterated the tour’s message: Canada must honour its treaty commitments — "Canada signed a contract" — and we must prioritize the environment over the bottom line.
"In 30 years, we’re going to thank the First Nations if they’re able to stop this," he said, adding that Alberta is going to "look like the moon" if oilsands development continues. As for the criticism that he’s ill-informed on the subject, Young was the first to admit that he’s no authority on the effects of Alberta’s oil production, but pointed out that "your profession doesn’t limit your freedom of speech," adding "it’s OK if you want to dismiss me because I hit a power chord."
But there were only supporters in the house that night, and 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, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, his singular voice warm, raw and ragged.
Mellow's the Mind 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 revisiting 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 Mr. Soul and Pocahontas, during which he made the night’s first reference to the concert’s cause, ribbing Stephen Harper towards the end. The crowd-pleasing Helpless — with its comforting familiarity — 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 somewhere towards the end of the main set.
He spoke for every last person in that room.
Indeed, this was a very special gem of a concert.
Canadian jazz chanteuse Diana Krall kicked off the evening with a loose and lively 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. Krall’s performance of Joni Mitchell’s Amelia could have been particularly gorgeous had she nailed the lyrics. No matter; it was just fun to see her wail on Neil’s piano — especially on a dusky cover of Tom Waits’ Clap Hands.
Five stars out of five