In the decades before the Internet, Neil Young’s hardcore fans found ways to communicate with one another about shows and bootlegs, mythic guitar solos and stacks of unreleased, finished songs that continually added to the aura of mystery that surrounded him. That he would play shows, particularly in the ’70s and ’80s, overstuffed with little-known tunes was something to marvel at and fear, but now word travels fast when Young is delving deep into his vaults as he is on this tour. His two sets at the Nokia — the acoustic one opened with “Hank to Hendrix” and the electric with “The Loner” — were awash in obscurities, making it a night to cherish for its singular artistic vision and collection of brilliant guitar solos.
Young’s theater tour is set up to get the word out about “Chrome Dreams II” (Reprise), which was released last week and charted reasonably well (No. 11, 54,000 sold) for a new Young recording. The “II” in the title signifies that this is a sequel, although it’s for an album that was never released as intended. The initial “Chrome Dreams,” recorded in 1976 and ’77, included songs that would show up on “Rust Never Sleeps” and versions of tunes that had appeared on the grab-bag release “American Stars n’ Bars”; if we’re printing the oft-repeated legend, it’s the greatest Neil Young album ever.
As if to lay down an introduction to the mindset of “Chrome Dreams II,” Young uses his hourlong acoustic portion to scurry back to the mid-’70s when most of these tunes were penned. After performing the sprawling “Ambulance Blues,” he doled out the never-released songs (“Sad Movies,” “Don’t Say You Win, Don’t Say You Lose,” “Love Art Blues”), songs that appeared on the mid-’70s “Decade” compilation (“Campaigner,” “Love is a Rose”), unadorned versions of the orchestrated works on “Harvest” (“A Man Needs a Maid” and the title track) and two “hits” (“After the Gold Rush,” “Old Man”).
Only one song was dramatically different from its best-known version: “Mellow My Mind,” an electric garage rocker that appears on “Tonight’s the Night,” was performed, quite magically, on banjo. He sang it as he did on record, straining in spots to hit the highest notes, but overall Young appears to have gained control of the deep undertones in his voice; he’s still nasally, but more commanding as a singer.
Seated in front of a semi-circle of acoustic guitars, Young comically commented that he once worried about what he would say between songs, a response to relentless shouting of song titles while he was changing guitars and harmonicas. Bizarrely, the crowd that went to see the “Greendale” concerts was more accepting of Young and his band performing unfamiliar material behind an army of actors mouthing his words in a semi-staged play. A large contingent erroneously believes that paying hundreds of dollars to sit in the orchestra gives them the right to dictate a set list.
Five songs from “Chrome Dreams II” worked their way into the 11-song, 90-minute electric set, highlighted by a nearly 20-minute version of “No Hidden Path.” Young’s latest addition to his canon of guitar-solo driven songs (“Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Cortez the Killer,” “Like a Hurricane”) is the most adventurous number in the set; if Jimi Hendrix and certain blues players were his guiding light on earlier songs of this ilk, then John Coltrane is the force here. Young explored harmonic and melodic structures in distinct individual blocks, smoothly gliding through some areas and careening off the walls of others. Best of all, he held your interest for the duration.
As if to contrast the fact that “No Hidden Path” relies on Young taking the lead and navigating the minimal chord changes, he sings “Show me the way and I’ll follow you today.” It connects with the despair of his mid-’70s milieu in an unexpected manner: This song and ones played prior — “Spirit Road,” “The Believer,” “Bad Fog of Loneliness” — share with the acoustic numbers a sense of longing, the desire to be needed and for guidance.
Young’s set is an old studio soundstage, with rows of unrelated letters (from a marquee? a roof sign?) behind him and spotlights on the side. A painter works in a rear corner of the stage, painting song titles over mostly abstract works during the electric set that he places on an easel at the lip of the stage. Quirky.
Young will perform for six nights at New York’s United Palace in mid-December.