The Universal Notebook: In concert with Neil Young

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Music, I am sorry to say, has not been a big part of my life since I graduated from college 40 years ago. Live music never was.

Since I attended the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, I can probably count on two hands the number of concerts I have attended – Bob Dylan a couple of times, James Taylor, and Joan Armatrading, with my wife, Carolyn; Markey Mark, Phish and Green Day, with our daughters.

To be perfectly honest, there are very few musicians I would walk across the street to see in concert. Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, and Neil Young are the only ones who come to mind. Last week, as it happened, I allowed myself to be dragged all the way to Boston to see Neil Young in concert at the Wang Theatre. I’m not sure I actually “saw” him in concert, but I sure as heck heard him.

I really don’t like going places. Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” could easily be my theme song. So the idea that I would drive all the way to Boston on a Tuesday evening, in the process spending $52 for gas, $27 to park and $85 apiece for three tickets, makes no sense. But my sister-in-law, for whom the ticket was purchased, was away on vacation, so I consented to be a good sport and accompany my lovely wife, youngest daughter Tess, and her buddy Lane.

After successfully negotiating the Escher-esque landscape of highways, bypasses, overpasses, bridges and tunnels that is metropolitan Boston, we parked on the seventh floor of the garage next door to the Wang and made our way to the theater.

The Wang, built as the Metropolitan Theatre in 1923 and renamed in 1983, is an overly ornate French Renaissance-style structure, gorgeous but over the top. It’s like sitting inside a Faberge egg. And other than the old Boston Garden, I don’t think I have ever sat in steeper balcony seats. I had vertigo all the time the warm-up act, folk guitarist Bert Jansch, was playing.

When Neil Young, a tall 65-year-old man in a white jacket and white fedora, took the stage, I was glad he was wearing white. Otherwise, I’m not sure I would have spotted him at all from row R of the balcony. But, oh man, when he started playing, I knew Neil Young was in the building. That guy can make a lot of noise for one man alone onstage.

Young performed enough of his classic hits – “Down by the River,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “Helpless,” “Ohio,” “Hey Hey My My (Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Never Die)” – to keep the faithful happy, but Neil Young is nothing if not his own man and he was clearly in no mood to play some of his more upbeat hits such as “Heart of Gold,” “Harvest Moon,” and, my favorite, “Comes a Time” (the tune to which I danced with daughter Hannah at her wedding).

Deep, dark, and apocalyptic is how I would describe the man who stalked the Wang stage that night. I’m surprised he didn’t play “Rockin’ in the Free World,” his savage satiric anthem of the Bush years, but Young’s newest songs are angrier still. Or rather the songs from his new “LeNoise” album – “Angry World,” “Love and War,” “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” and “Walk With Me” – are the songs of a man who has passed through anger and outrage to a kind of stunned resignation in the face of overwhelming human folly:

When I sing about love and war/I don’t really know what I’m saying/I’ve been in love and I’ve seen a lot of war/Seen a lot of people praying/They pray to Allah and they prey to the lord/But mostly they pray about love and war/Pray about love and war

I knew exactly what he meant. I’m almost there myself. Young punctuated his sad, stern lyrics with sonic shockwaves from his reverberating guitar. I could feel his message in my chest even before it reached my eardrums. I’ve got to start getting out less often.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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