WANTAGH, N.Y. Veteran rocker Neil Young is often referred to as the godfather of grunge, but Thursday night at the Jones Beach Theater, he switched from introspective singer/songwriter to wild, heavy-rock guitar slinger sometimes within a song.
During his performance, the 54-year-old two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer moved effortlessly from the quiet folk of his latest album, Silver and Gold, to the stark, brutal force of the unbridled rockers he has recorded with his band, Crazy Horse.
Backed by a six-piece band including renowned sidemen Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass and Jim Keltner on drums, Young opened the set with a rollicking version of "Motorcycle Mama," from his 1978 album, Comes a Time.
The crowd shouted out requests, and Young responded. " 'Southern Man,' what, are you kidding me? Didn't you see CSNY?" Young said, referring to the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tour he participated in earlier this year. "What do you want, the same song two times in a row? You people in New York, you're tough. You gotta be on when you [play] here."
And on he was. Early in the set, Young offered a blistering version of his 1979 Crazy Horse rocker "Powderfinger," from Rust Never Sleeps. Wearing a black T-shirt, blue jeans and a cowboy hat, Young tilted his body forward and wildly moved back and forth in place, while playing raunchy power chords on his electric guitar.
Set Serves As Career Retrospective
He then immediately shifted gears, swapping his instrument for an acoustic guitar and offering a sampling of hits and obscurities from a career of 30-plus years. First was the austere title track of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969). Young also played a gentle trio of songs from his hit 1992 LP, Harvest Moon, including the title cut and the nostalgic "From Hank to Hendrix."
But the beauty of his quiet work was captured best in the breathtaking romanticism of "Razor Love" (RealAudio excerpt), from his latest release.
"I got faith in you/ It's a razor love that cuts clean through," Young sang as he kept his eyes closed and played the harmonica. "You really make my day with the little things you say," he continued, grimacing while reaching the highest notes.
The song was a stark contrast to the ferocity of the band's cover later in the set of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." Young bent his head down into his guitar as he and Dunn dueled with their instruments. When Young sang the lyric "the wind began to howl," it was a spine-tingling moment as the stage, on the water of Jones Beach, was brushed by the windy night and white lights flashed around the crowd to create a lightning effect.
"[Young] is so real," said 18-year-old fan Kelly Major of Southampton, N.Y. "He has so much more substance than most of the newer rock acts."
The entire set seemed like a blueprint for the box set that Young has reportedly been working on for years. The retrospective mood was nicely captured by "Buffalo Springfield Again" (RealAudio excerpt), the song about his famous, first rock band that Young wrote for his new album.
Young introduced the song with a story. "A long time ago there was a little club called Ondine's under the 59th Street Bridge," he said. "I played there with Buffalo Springfield for about a week. Then we got busted at the hotel. [Those] old tunes were good tunes."
Fans Were Onstage And Off
Thursday's opening band, the Pretenders, agreed, opening their set with Young's vintage tune "The Loner," and also included a rocking version of his bleak song about drug abuse, "The Needle and the Damage Done."
"We're so happy to be on this tour with Neil," lead singer Chrissie Hynde told the capacity crowd. "You think you're fans? [You're] not as big fans as we are." She also joked: "I'm gonna take this opportunity to kiss the stage [that Young] is gonna walk on later.
"It's so good to see so many old f---- here tonight," Hynde continued without completing the word. "Are you getting with it? Haven't you noticed? ... Youth sucks!"
In fact, the crowd was multigenerational and shared a love for Young's music more than advanced age.
"I've loved [Young] since my father got me into him 15 years ago," said 33-year-old Bayshore, N.Y., resident Debbie Smith.
Jason Goreoff, a 19-year-old Southampton resident, was also turned on to Young by a parent. "My mom always listened to Neil," he said. "He's doing it for his fans. He doesn't need the money."
Goreoff also is a fan of the Pretenders, who rocked as hard as Young did throughout most of their hourlong set.
As Hynde threw her guitar pick into the audience during the band's encore of "Middle of the Road," the Pretenders had a good deal of the audience on their feet dancing.
But the night belonged to Young. Near midnight, fans were screaming, "We love you, Neil," during a lengthy encore of Young's classic "Like a Hurricane."
"Thanks for coming," Young said. "We were gonna do it anyway, but it's much better with you here."