Great songs and great playing help aid his reputation, but it may be Neil Young’s ability to keep up with the times that’s enabled him to keep one of the wider demographic ranges of any rock act, and why it was Young who joined Pearl Jam on the recent MTV Video Awards.
Revered among fans for his frequent contrariness, Young is touring on the heels of a Reprise “Unplugged” album with an electric band and two quite contemporary and loud opening acts.
To make it more interesting, Young asked legendary Memphis studio musicians Booker T. and the MGs to back him. But rather than turning in Wilson Pickett or Staple Singers-style arrangements of his material, Young introduced elements of ’90s-style industrial and grunge music to many songs in a 130-minute set of Young standards, with the MGs’ rhythm section keeping the funk, relatively speaking, in the background.
Opening with vintage Buffalo Springfield showpiece “Mr. Soul,” Young continued with four songs, each of which an artist could base an entire career on. They included snarling guitar showcases “The Loner,””Southern Man” and “Like a Hurricane.”
Original MGs Booker T. Jones (organ), Steve Cropper (guitar) and “Duck” Dunn (bass) are joined by veteran L.A. session drummer Jim Keltner. Group’s presence was felt more often than spotlighted, though subtle R&B groove infused several numbers.
Though he played a number of softer songs, the most exciting moments came when Young would peal chorus after chorus of ringing electric guitar.
Set closed with raging version of Young’s “Down by the River”; a most obvious salute of the evening to Booker T’s band with a lovely “(Sittin on the) Dock of the Bay,” which Cropper co-wrote and Cropper, Dunn and Jones played on Otis Redding’s original; and Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” which Young and the MGs played at last year’s Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden.
Show opened with acts representing the next two generations from Young: Orange County’s Social Distortion, which has been recording for a decade and is currently on Epic, and L.A.-based Blind Melon, most of its members emigres from Mississippi.
Those fans who showed up at 6 p.m. enjoyed a presentation that included (perhaps for the oldsters) a wah-wah version of Traffic’s 1968 “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”
Social Distortion’s set, also 40 minutes long, included their own “Ball and Chain,””Drug Train” and a terrific surf/thrash rendition of the Johnny Cash oldie “Ring of Fire.”