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Neil Young

  • Overture Hall 201 State Street Madison, WI, 53703 United States (map)

A solo performance from one of rock's most complex icons. Info/tix

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It may seem like hyperbole to state that Neil Young has been an icon for longer than most people have been alive, but it's also true. Like most icons, Young has also always been complex, far more so than sobriquets like "the godfather of grunge" convey. For one thing, Young has always been a folk musician at heart—but crucially, one whose mind and soul were turned around both by the inspired wave of electric music in the early 1960s, and later on the seismic impact of Jimi Hendrix. And those influences are essential to understanding how he would go on to write, and why the musical straightforwardness and lyrical obscurantism that marked even his earliest material (like "Sugar Mountain") predicted the sound he would later develop.

Whether initially consciously or not, Young realized and perfected a deceptively complicated idea early on that respected and synthesized some of the best virtues of folk music and rock and roll in a cunning and highly affecting blend. Unlike practically any other folkies of the time who transitioned to rock and roll, Young comprehended on a gut level that roughness and partially simulated simplicity in the service of emotional resonance, a feature of some of the most moving and exciting folk and country, lends a thrilling power to the exhilarating melodic virtues and sheer lunatic call of the best rock and roll. He also instinctively understood that using this conceptual edge as a through-line could unite things as seemingly disparate as heavy guitar distortion, stark acoustic laments, country-flavored celebration and mastodontic rhythmic drive. It's that duality—his pioneering, endlessly fresh approach of combining an uncommonly sensitive and intelligent singer-songwriter's mentality and craft with an unforgettably haunting, expressionist, yet easily accessible and memorable feel for rock and roll—that has led to his enormous influence on generations of rock musicians.

That duality is present even in his quieter, more traditionally folksy acoustic solo performances, which is how he will soon perform at Overture Hall. A song like 1969's ineffable "Down By The River" existed in its original studio version as a 9-minute electric dirge, performed with Young's backing band Crazy Horse. It featured, among many virtues, epic sweep, beautiful rhythmic feel pitched between the romanticized dream sounds of inspired amateurism and primitive mastery, keening and unmistakable singing, and phenomenal guitar interplay between Young and the short-lived Danny Whitten. But Young was just as easily performing the song as a desperate 4-minute acoustic blues as early as 1971, shorn of solos, volume, fuzz or even other band members.

It's often surprising how comfortably the most superficially rocking material of Young's translates to acoustic settings, but it's a twinning he's milked forever, sometimes even to disturbing ends. On 1989's Freedom, he put two versions of the bitterly ironic hit "Rockin' In The Free World" on the record, one electric and one acoustic—not only to illustrate how his material stands up to any approach, but to show just how easily anyone can interpret it, as the chilling live acoustic version documents how little the audience that night even understood what Young was trying to tell them. This was some conceptual distance beyond even the dual electric and acoustic versions of "Hey Hey, My My" that appeared on 1979's classic Rust Never Sleeps, still Young's greatest ever demonstration of how the intertwined sides of his musical personality feed and play off of each other. He's illustrated this seemingly paradoxical principle in one way or another for decades, and he'll likely do it again in this solo performance at the Overture. The wonder is that it still retains so much power and mystery. —Mike Noto