Neil Young brings laughter, then tears, and again laughter to Vancouver

Neil Young at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, 05/14/19

Photo by Ryan Johnson

Wow. Just, wow.

That was the reaction of nearly everyone in attendance at the first night of Neil Young’s two solo shows at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Young made many in the theatre cry, particularly during the ever-stunning “Harvest Moon.”  These tears were a surprise to most, because Young filled the silence between songs with hilarious, sometimes grumpy and always delightful banter. The audience was audibly happy and light-hearted, and then … bam! He broke into the heart wrenching “I Believe in You,” and everyone was mush.

Young played his first solo Vancouver show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in 1971, and the city was more than happy to have another solo show. The acoustic set was all Young needed. In fact, a band would have broken the intense intimacy felt between the legendary singer and his adoring audience.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

The stage was filled with guitars, two pianos, an organ and a neon sign flashing the word ‘LOVE.’ Young donned a brown fedora, t-shirt and plaid shirt – he actually kind of looked like a grunge teenager circa the early ‘90s. His set often centered on environmental issues, which is something near and dear to his heart. The most poignant of these was “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem).”

Young sang of weather changes, fires and floods. He made reference to the young people currently fighting for environmental rights: “I saw young folks fight to save mother nature.” No doubt American politician Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and the many youths who joined in on the Strike for Climate across the world this year came to the minds of audience members.

“Old Man” got the first truly rousing sing-a-long of the evening.

“Come on old man, sing out!” said a guy from the audience. It should be noted that the audience heckling on Tuesday was particularly irritating. Most of the comments bellowed out made little sense, or impeded on the vibe of artistry Young had constructed onstage.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

Classic favourites “Cinnamon Girl” and “War of Man” and “Old Man” hit you right in the gut, proving Young’s voice to sound literally exactly the same as on the original records. Not many artists in their later years can pull this off. The few that come to mind are Dolly Parton and Jackson Browne. Young’s guitar work on “Ohio” was particularly shocking in its perfection, proving Young has never missed a beat in his musical proficiency.

As Young made his way through his setlist, he started to wing it a bit. Or at least wanted the audience to think he was.

“I’m just making [stuff] up now,”  Young said as he wandered around the stage trying to figure out want song to play and, therefore, which instrument to pick up. However, it all seemed utterly natural and charming.

Young is a master at creating a large, orchestral sound all by himself – whether using harmonicas, looper pedals, or the banjo for Harvest Moon classic “Old King.” When he broke into “Harvest Moon” and, immediately after, “Heart of Gold,” the audience was officially a gonner.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

Young’s encore choice, “Tumbleweed,” was the perfect choice to end such an intimate evening. The Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Buffalo Springfield alum stood on-stage with his ukulele, and sang:

Tumbleweed, your inner spirit is a peace sign to me
Life is full of little tricks and we can always pick up sticks
And build again, that’s what we do
These lyrics hint at an innate optimism. A belief that we can bring Mother Earth back and heal through love. This ending left the audience thrilled that they had just witnessed a Neil Young performance that – despite his many, many years of musicianship – the artist was all in on. And the crowd was all in on Neil Young.
Photo by Ryan Johnson