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Neil Young/ Bert Jansch
Avery Fischer Hall
Sunday, April 24
Better than: Easter dinner with your two guitar-playing grandfathers.
As the crowd of Neil fans sorted themselves out at Lincoln Center, there was a bit of murmuring when opener Bert Jansch took the stage. For all their knowledge of Neil’s back catalog, few audience members recognized the British folk legend, who was an early influence on Young back when he was still busking at cafés in Toronto and is a most apt choice as opener on this string of East Coast dates.
That lineage between the two gentlemen is best heard when playing Jansch’s heart-breaking 1965 song “Needle of Death” next to Young’s equally poignant 1972 updating, “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Neither Jansch nor Young sought to revive such old ghosts and avoided playing these songs, although both men will reunite with former bandmates come June; Jansch and his Pentangle bandmates will reunite to play Glastonbury Festival and Young will join the reconvened Buffalo Springfield, culminating in an appearance at Bonnaroo. But if tonight proved anything, it was that neither man needs a full band to carry a room.
Jansch’s repertoire ranged from his “It Don’t Bother Me” to fellow folk originator Anne Briggs’s aching “Blackwater Side.” He also dusted off other lost folk legends, opening with Karen Dalton’s harrowing “Katie Cruel” and climaxing with Jackson C. Frank’s brooding song “Carnival.” While Jansch’s singing voice at times came out murmured and indistinct, his finger-picking was stable and crystalline.
Young settled himself with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica and opened with resplendent versions of “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” “Tell Me Why,” and “Helpless” in quick succession. From there, Young took a slow meander around the stage before going into the unreleased song “You Never Call,” which veers from lines about the Detroit Red Wings and In-N-Out Burgers to this chorus: “You’re in heaven with nothing to do… all we do is work.”
Drawing primarily from last year’s tetchy yet mesmeric Le Noise and 1970’s gold standard After the Gold Rush, Young took detours as well: to the upright piano for a song tangentially about grandkids, “Leia”; to the grand piano for “I Believe in You”; to the pipe organ for “After the Gold Rush.” He found ample space amid the seething chords and choruses of “Down by the River” and “Cortez the Killer,” and on the effects-laden takes of “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” and “Rumblin'” Young hit and sustained some denture-rattling bass tones.
Young neatly boiled down his craft on “Love and War”: “Since the backstreets of Toronto/ I sang for justice and I hit a bad chord/ But I still try to sing about love and war.” He then proceeded to juxtapose the bloody “Ohio” with the endearing lurch of last year’s “Sign of Love” as if to prove that point. One woman in the crowd focused solely on the former topic, rushing up on stage at the end to wrap her arms around Young and force a kiss on him. He simply strolled to the other side of the stage.
Critical bias: My favorite Neil Young songs of late are about him wishing he could be a fish (“Will to Love”) or wishing he was a robot (see Trans).
Overheard: At a lull between songs: “Play whatever you want, old man!” (Though it could’ve also been: “Play whatever you want.” “Old Man!”)
Random notebook dump: “Helpless” was accompanied by the gentlest crowd singalong ever heard.
My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)
Tell Me Why
You Never Call
Peaceful Valley Boulevard
Love and War
Down by the River
Sign of Love
After the Gold Rush
I Believe in You
Cortez the Killer
Walk With Me