Many refer to the 1980s as Neil Young’s “lost decade,” but for his Minnesota fanbase, that term may as well refer to the 2010s—the Canadian musical chameleon hasn’t visited the Twin Cities since a solo Northrop show in 2010.
He’ll be making up for lost time over the next week with four Minneapolis theater shows: at the Pantages (Saturday), Orpheum (Monday), State (Tuesday), and Northrop (Thursday). At any of these, you’re likely to hear Neil standards such as “Heart of Gold,” “After the Gold Rush,” and “Ohio,” but beyond those classic rock staples that allow the 73-year-old to charge $300 for the best seats in the house, the composition of his upcoming setlists is anyone’s guess.
Young hasn’t released an album of new material since 2017’s The Visitor (a year without a new record is an eternity for a man who’s made nearly 50 studio albums across his various projects), so he shouldn’t feel the need to favor new songs over old. Likewise, he won’t feel restricted by the limitations of other musicians, given that his only onstage accompaniment will come from a large collection of guitars, pianos, and other instruments ready to carry a tune at a moment’s notice.
The man they call “Shakey” played 53 unique songs over the course of 10 solo concerts in 2018, so the possibilities are as endless as one of his jams with Crazy Horse. Without further ado, here are the top 10 deep cuts I want to hear during Young’s four-night stand.
OK, maybe a little further ado: As much as I’d love to hear Neil play every song from Trans, I intend to keep this list realistic. For a song to be included here, it has have been originally presented in stripped-down form or be easily translatable to a solo setting and have been played by Young, either solo or with any of his bands (Crazy Horse, Promise of the Real, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) since the new millennium. That first part rules out of much of his Crazy Horse material, while the second piece of criteria means a work of art like “Natural Beauty” can't be included. I’ll keep my fingers crossed, though.
“Bandit” – Greendale (2003)
Last played: 3/21/04 in Amherst, MA with Crazy Horse
The endearingly indulgent Greendale, a Crazy Horse rock opera about murder and environmental disaster in a small California town, is heavy on extended guitar passages and detailed character dialogue but light on acoustic numbers or a storyline that makes any fucking sense. However, the album slows down long enough for “Bandit,” a gorgeous little number that Young talk-sings through while strumming his low E string really hard. The way he says “seems fer-miliar” is worth the listen alone.
“Peace Trail” – Peace Trail (2016)
Last played: 10/23/16 in Mountain View, CA with Promise of the Real
Neil’s first record with Promise of the Real, an already-existing band led by Willie Nelson’s sons, is full of wonderful weirdness. Truth be told, I’d rather hear “My Pledge” (in which Young swears to the judge to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth) or “My New Robot” (an ode to Alexa, on which the Amazon virtual assistant makes a guest appearance), but he’s yet to play either live. The earnest “Peace Trail” would be a welcome consolation, though. It’s a more conventional number, an inward call-to-arms marked by a blaze of slow-burn guitar.
“Razor Love” – Silver & Gold (2000)
Last played: 6 / 21/18 in Santa Barbara, CA with Promise of the Real
It doesn’t have the word “harvest” in its title, but Silver & Gold is Neil in full-on folkie mode. (It’s also possibly the only album whose cover art was captured with a Game Boy Camera.) Even at six-and-a-half minutes, the unassuming “Razor Love” doesn’t overstay its welcome. The love song for recently-deceased then-wife Pegi is one of the sweetest in Young’s entire canon; hushed lines like “You really made my day with the little things you say” are punctuated by beautiful piano and harmonica flourishes.
“Lost in Space” – Hawks & Doves (1980)
Last played: 6/21/09 in Dublin
The quirky “Lost in Space” was seemingly lost to time for three decades, not making its live debut until 2009, when Neil trotted it out eight times in Canada and Europe before throwing it back into a black hole. Young’s gentle vocal performance and dreamlike lyrics are aided by dynamic movements that keep the listener guessing at where the song will head next. The randomly pitch-shifted harmonies at 2:14 are a highlight.
“On the Beach” – On the Beach (1974)
Last played: 4/29/03 in Hamburg
There is perhaps no song more emblematic of Young’s ’70s “Ditch Trilogy” (Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight’s the Night) than this dirge about his newfound stardom. Along with “Motion Pictures (For Carrie)” and “Ambulance Blues” (more on that one later), the title track makes up one of the greatest three-song stretches in rock history, but Neil has only ever played it live three times, according to setlist.fm —once in 1974, again in 1999 and most recently in 2003. Seems like enough time has passed for a single performance in 2019.
“Hitchhiker” – Le Noise (2010) and Hitchhiker (2017)
Last played: 5/11/11 in Chicago, IL
Neil first recorded this druggy, autobiographical tune for an album of the same name in 1976, but both the song and LP were shelved until recently. “Hitchhiker” was resurrected for the solo-electric Le Noise, while the all-acoustic album, a lost classic if there ever was one, was finally released two years ago. The title track’s list of substances suggests that the singer’s medicine cabinet could’ve rivaled that of Keith Richards in the ’70s, while its bridge later became the chorus on Trans’ “Like an Inca.”
“Roger and Out” – Living with War (2006)
Last played: 6/10/06 in Burgettstown, PA with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
CSNY’s 2006 tour served as the de facto support tour for Young’s hastily recorded but unfairly maligned Living with War, an album whose sole purpose was to talk shit about George Bush. Unsuspecting right-wing audience members stormed out over tunes like “Let’s Impeach the President” and “Lookin’ for a Leader,” but there’s no arguing with “Roger and Out,” both the record’s penultimate track and one of Young’s pen’s ultimate songs. This heartbreaking elegy to a veteran friend humanizes Living with War in a way the previous eight songs can’t quite match, as Neil apolitically tackles lost innocence (“When we both went down to register, we were laughing all the way”) and the honor in serving one’s country over washes of electric guitar.
“Campaigner” – Decade (1978) and Hitchhiker (2017)
Last played: 2/20/08 in Amsterdam
“Campaigner” had been out for nearly 40 years before being included on Hitchhiker (although the version on the Decade compilation omitted a verse), but it’s still odd that Young hasn’t dusted it (or “Hitchhiker”) off since unveiling his long-delayed acoustic album in 2017. This song features one of his most haunting melodies, envisioning a twisted fantasy land “where even Richard Nixon has got soul.” “Roads stretch out like healthy veins/And wild gift horses strain the reins” is some of Neil’s most masterful writing, possibly suggesting that the narrator can only reach that utopia through heroin, which had killed at least two of his friends by the late ’70s.
“Thrasher” – Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Last played: 10/1/18 in Upper Darby, PA
Neil is a master of both self-renewal and self-reflection. There is no better marriage of these two concepts in his catalog than “Thrasher,” where he explains why Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had yet to follow-up 1970 smash Déjà Vu in the intervening decade. “I got bored and left them there,” Young sings. “They were just dead weight to me.” But the overall sentiment of the song isn’t nearly that mean: Adorning the chorus-less set of lyrics with nature and farming imagery, he comes to terms with his bandmates’ lack of ambition (“They were poisoned with protection”) while justifying his search for his own muse (“Me, I’m not stopping there/Got my own row left to hoe”).
UPDATE: He played it in Milwaukee last night. So things are looking up for us "Thrasher" fans.
“Ambulance Blues” – On the Beach (1974)
Last played: 1/25/16 in Paris
This requiem for Neil’s younger days in the Toronto folk scene is an undeniable masterpiece and considered by many to be his greatest composition. Eschewing a traditional chorus, this nine-minute acoustic epic once again references Crosby, Stills, Nash and Nixon (“You’re all just pissing in the wind” and “I never knew a man could tell so many lies,” respectively), as well as his midnight gigs at T.O.’s legendary Riverboat coffee house and the gentrification of his former neighborhood on Isabella Street. One of my biggest musical pet peeves is when a singer references the song he’s singing in its lyrics (“It’s hard to say the meaning of this song”), but “Ambulance Blues” is such a perfect piece of music that I just look the other way.