Neil Young, D.A.R. Constitution Hall, Washington D.C.- 11/15
Lester Bangs wrote of “flashbulb moments” in rock and roll. I’ve got another to add to my list: Neil Young is sitting on the edge of his chair, feet tapping restlessly on the floor as he shifts back and forth in his gray suit, strumming his guitar hard while his stringy hair drapes carelessly in his face, while driving home “Ambulance Blues.” It is the second song in his set, and I am in the back row of D.A.R. Constitution Hall, a stone’s throw from the White House in the heart of our nation’s capital with the stubborn Canadian whose songwriting has both captured American culture and stood in firm opposition to its policies. The air outside is cold and damp, but inside the hall is bordering on stifling. There is no circulation whatsoever, just sweaty air that grows thicker and heavier as the evening winds on. You can’t bring drinks inside to relieve the heat and you can’t smoke cigarettes outside because there’s no re-entry. I wonder what the original Daughters of the American Revolution would make of that. A lesser gig would have seen me annoyed at uptight venue policies, but I let it slide. When Young sings, “You’re all just pissing in the wind,” the audience cheers. An appropriate sentiment for this town.
Young is still a master craftsman of both American folk and rock music, which he more then proved at Constitution Hall over two sets, one solo and acoustic and the other electric with Ben Keith (guitar), Rick Rosas (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums). A cross between a mechanic’s workshop, a movie set and an artist’s studio, even incorporating a painter during the second half, the stage set further reflected this idea of craft. The acoustic portion saw Young switching between guitar, organ, piano and banjo, showing off his varied skills as a musician as he intertwined staples such as a delicate “Harvest” and a stripped down “Cowgirl in the Sand” with rarer cuts such as “Love Art Blues” and “Try.” As someone in her mid-twenties, to me Neil Young has always been part mystic, part respected village elder. Listening to his music stretching back into the early 1960’s, the constant lyrical theme of time passing, even when coupled with the specific cultural context during which the songs were written, always makes me reflect on the fleetingness of the present moment, the impossibility of holding on to anything stable. But as Young’s voice has changed little over the years, it was easy to close my eyes and experience a sense of timelessness and pause, an illusion shattered by the audience’s respectful (and empathetic in regards to his original fans) clapping when he sang, “And I’m getting old” during set closer “Heart of Gold.”
The sparse beauty of the first half built up to the emotional intensity that boiled over in the second. New song “Dirty Old Man” brought the heavy feedback crunch while a soaring “Winterlong” brought Ben Keith’s steel pedal center stage. The climax, a twenty-minute plus “No Hidden Path” was ear splittingly loud and furious, slicing through the dense humid air before bringing the audience to their feet for a “Cinnamon Girl” and “Like a Hurricane” encore. The odd couple even managed to sneak into the aisles for a quick dance before disappearing back into the darkness of the floor seats. Throughout the evening Young was relaxed, joking with the audience and flitting back and forth across the stage swigging beer. Despite the expensive tickets and stiff venue policies, the show was laid back and intimate.
But it was “Ambulance Blues” that will stay with me the most when I think back on this gig. We each bring our own personal shrapnel to music. The bleakly brilliant “On the Beach” has been my bizarre choice of running music while I wind through the same tracts of housing and cul de sacs day after day in search of fresh air and space during this brief stop-over at my parent’s house in Maryland. It is impossible to maintain a constant speed in these spindly roads as I dodge SUVs and charging poodles that accessorize the bland McMansions and it quickly becomes a worthless exercise in frustration over cardio, coupled with the frustrations that pushed me out into the developments in the first place. Meanwhile Young’s light growl will fill my head: “An ambulance can only go so fast/It’s easy to get buried in the past/When you try to make a good thing last.” Seeing this song performed live by a master craftsman lifted it out of the cul de sacs and into the larger context of these strange times, when we often feel like we are all just pissing in the wind.