By David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; C02
Neil Young's never-ending desire to live in the present can be both his most fascinating and frustrating quality. Only a decade into his career he already possessed one of rock's great songbooks yet continued to add to it with a Woody Allen-like regularity. He sang about war in the '70s, went electronic in the early '80s, formed a grunge superpower alliance with Pearl Jam in the '90s and sang about war again in the '00s. He'll play his hits, but you can tell his heart is always with what's next.
His solo performance Monday at Constitution Hall -- where he toggled between acoustic and electric guitar, pump organ and piano -- was a sort of compromise. Half of the set consisted of '70s classics: "My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," "Tell Me Why," "Helpless." (And that was just the opening trio.) The rest of the songs were brand new, unreleased compositions that have been debuted on his current week-old tour.
It's no surprise which batch was more immediately fulfilling. "Helpless" remains a uniquely devastating dirge, and seeing Young trudge and slash through an ear-ringing electric version of "Cortez the Killer" is like watching Albert Pujols swing a baseball bat -- it just comes so naturally.
But seeing the 64-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer navigate his way through those new songs offered a more voyeuristic thrill. No audience member was able to exercise his or her perceived $200-paid right to sing along. For half of the 90-minute set, it was Young playing the role of rugged iconoclast, making his audience sit through these works-in-progress in order to get to those 35-year-old favorites. Nine songs were greeted with wild applause at the first lyric; the rest were greeted with questioning whispers and staggered bathroom runs.
"I sang for justice and I hit a bad chord/But I still try to sing about love and war," he offered in his standard warble on "Love and War," a meandering acoustic number that almost seemed like an apology for his 2006 Iraq war protest album, "Living With War." "Peaceful Valley" was a similarly somber folk story, starting in the time of Native American massacres ("Bullets hit the bison from the train/Shots rang across the peaceful valley/White man laid his foot upon the plain" and working toward present day climate concerns ("A polar bear was drifting on an ice float/Sun beating down from the sky/Politicians gathered for a summit/And came away with nothing to decide").
Young has hardly ever been an inscrutable lyricist and that trend was even more apparent with these new songs. "You Never Call" was filled with some laugh lines ("I know you're going to the hockey game/The Red Wings are coming to town/I saw your car in the parking lot/In-N-Out Burger fries all around"), and "Sign of Love" was as straightforward an ode to a lover as you'll find ("We both have silver hair/And a little less time/But there are still roses on the vine").
None of those songs seem likely to enter the Young pantheon, although the appropriately named "Rumblin' " offers the greatest promise thanks to the staggering low-end sensations he created with just a single electric guitar. There was no rhythm section in tow yet the floors in the venue were vibrating just the same and even more so on the version of "Cinnamon Girl" that followed. A full solo electric outing would be a memorably sternum-shaking experience.
"They're all the same. Good vibrations," he said to the audience before his lone encore number. It was a head-scratching statement, especially as it was just one of two times he addressed the crowd, but so was his choice for set closer. "I feel your strength/I feel your faith in me," he sang on "Walk With Me," another debut. But that lyric almost seemed beside the point. It's great to have fans, but it's Young's faith in himself as an artist that will keep him consistently intriguing for as long as he's still at it.