DURHAM -- You just never know what you're going to get when Neil Young comes to town, because he has multiple guises to choose from. There's the folksy acoustic troubadour at one end, the noble-savage electric-guitar savant at the other, and numerous shades in between.
For his latest tour, which opened at the Durham Performing Arts Center Friday night, Young has chosen a typically idiosyncratic course: performing all of them, or at least as many as he could fit into a 90-minute set, as a one-man band. The songs chosen pretty much covered his primary obsessions, with the obligatory references to native Americans, mother nature and whether or not somebody just told a lie.
Following a mellow, enjoyably drowsy 40-minute opening set by British folk-rock notable Bert Jansch, Young came onstage in a white jacket and fedora, looking as if he'd just stepped off the cover of his latest album "Le Noise." Then he sat down, picked up an acoustic guitar and started with three chestnuts the soldout crowd had come to hear: "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," "Tell Me Why" and "Helpless."
Between the apocalyptic tone of the minor-key guitar riff, Young's atmospheric harmonica and his haunting-as-ever cracked whine, "My My, Hey Hey" was particularly effective. But just as everyone was settling in, possibly hoping against hope for a greatest-hits set of nothing but the old classics, Young changed gears.
For the rest of the set, Young alternated between acoustic and electric guitar, two different flavors of piano (upright and baby grand) and even pump organ. Between songs, Young would wander about the stage, as if trying to decide which one he wanted to play next.
One interesting aspect of this approach was that you got a sense of the threads that make up Young's whole, and connections between his acoustic and electric sides. At times in the past, those have seemed more like separate warring factions than parts of a unified whole. But presented in this way, with no extraneous bandmates or instrumentation, Young's electric and acoustic sides didn't seem so different.
Of course, the show wasn't perfect. It could have been longer, for one thing, because it wrapped well before the customary 11 p.m. stopping time after just an hour and a half. For another, if Young was going to play that short a set, he could have done a few less songs off "Le Noise" and a few more from the more obscure corners of his catalog.
"Le Noise" isn't bad, and it has at least one remarkable song in "The Hitchhiker" -- a back-pages rumination of Young's own long strange trip with vintage-classic lyrics ("Smokin' grass as the summer passed/In a real organic scene"). Still, it's not like people were leaping to their feet to give the "Le Noise" material standing ovations. No, the songs they were excited to hear were "Down by the River," with its maelstrom of electric guitar; "After the Gold Rush," with the reference to "1970s" updated to "21st century"; and most especially "Ohio," which still sounds up-to-date without any rewriting to speak of.
Other highlights included "Cortez the Killer" and "Cinnamon Girl." For the encore, Young broke out the "Le Noise" song "Walk With Me," and he closed by waving his guitar in front of the onstage amplifiers to induce feedback drones.
That's a trick Young probably learned from touring with Sonic Youth 20 years ago. But he still made it seem brand new.
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