The predictability of recent Neil Young tours with Crazy Horse gave this current go-round with a battery of old friends and relatives a curious air. On the surface it has the appearance of a casual back-porch jam session with heavy folk leanings, a concept perfectly in keeping with the graceful tone of his recent Reprise disc “Silver and Gold.” To a degree, that partly held sway, yet this two-hour show was so much more: Taken collectively with his last two L.A. solo visits — an acoustic show at the Wiltern and an evening with the Horse at the Forum — it forms a fine overview of a supreme rock ‘n’ roll career.
Opener was “Motorcycle Mama,” a ditty from 1978’s “Comes a Time,” an album that’s as much the prequel to “Silver & Gold” as “Harvest” was to “Harvest Moon.” The timbre was rougher than either of the records as Young led the charge with his black Les Paul electric guitar, segueing into a hard-hitting version of “Powderfinger,” one of the most vital and timeless tunes in his songbook.
By then Young was able to let everyone know what they were in for: an evening of tunes that didn’t fit the formats of the past six years, including CSNY. Songs from the 1970s dominated, but a gorgeous new love song (“Razor Love”) and selections from his two biggest sellers in the 1990s gave it a feeling of wholeness that this isn’t just a set for record geeks able to pick out obscurities like “Winterlong” from a few strums on the guitar.
“Words (Between the Lines of Age),” a rocker from 1972’s “Harvest” that may have never been presented in concert, became the evening’s centerpiece. A guitar workout, Young and fellow guitarist Ben Keith (who played on the original) delivered the grinding number with considerable brio, hot-footing their way through every nook and cranny of the composition; their rendition put it in a league with “Like a Hurricane” and “Cortez the Killer,” two longtime concert faves that Young has used to demonstrate his unique and always captivating guitar skills. Later in the evening, they delivered a 10-minute note-perfect electric version of “Cowgirl in the Sand” to even further mollify the guitar-solo fans.
The parade of 1970s non-hits included a bracing version of “Tonight’s the Night” that featured Young playing eerie piano fills; a rousing rendition of the rarely played “Walk On”; “Mellow My Mind”; “After the Gold Rush’s” “I Believe in You” and “See the Girl Dance,” a number that was long ago rewritten and became “Love Is a Rose,” a hit for Linda Ronstadt. Set also included a tune that debuted in 1989, “Bad Fog of Loneliness,” that has never made it onto an album.
Anchored by the bassist for Booker T. & the MGs, Donald “Duck” Dunn, the backing gave Young considerable support in a variety of situations. Keith, who played in the Stray Gators on “Harvest,” moved between pedal steel, lap steel and electric guitar, delivering complementary lines at every turn; drummer Jim Keltner, who backed CSNY on their recent trek and set the beat for Young, Dunn and Booker T. on a ’93 tour, was fussy in places but generally kept the tunes going at a solid clip. Young’s wife and sister, Pegi and Astrid, did a superb job as vocalists.
As wonderful as this evening is — 33-show tour runs through Oct. 1 in Vancouver, B.C. — it continues to omit the songs from Young’s haunting “Sleeps With Angels” disc, a landmark for him in the 1990s. If ever the time was right to drag out those rarely performed tunes, this is it.