After two months on the road, rock legend Neil Young closed out his North American tour last night with a catalogue-spanning set at New York City's Madison Square Garden. And the gig -- a celebratory event with openers Wilco and Everest -- drew a who's who list of celebs, including actor Bill Murray, singer/songwriter Norah Jones, and Oasis' Noel Gallagher.
Young protégés Everest welcomed the audience with tunes off their latest album, Ghost Notes, and a cover of Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," which saw gorgeous country lasses the Watson Twins and Wilco bassist John Stirratt on backing vocals.
Wilco opened their short set with Sky Blue Sky's pastoral "You Are My Face" and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." A few songs later, frontman Jeff Tweedy invited Norah Jones to join the band on psych-country ballad "Jesus, Etc." Jones, who covered the song at this year's Bridge School Benefit, hit the stage with two unidentified galpals, a group that Tweedy dubbed "Puss in Boots," and the trio sang backup to the track, which spurred a gleeful crowd sing-along. But Tweedy wasn't finished: To celebrate his son's birthday, the Chicago rocker invited 13-year-old Spencer to fill in on drums after the crowd sang a spirited "Happy Birthday."
"It's all down hill from here, son," Tweedy joked as Spencer left the stage.
As Young's stage hands prepared for his set, the stars began filling the seats near our stage-left perch. Bill Murray arrived with director Jim Jarmusch, Norah Jones and the rest of "Puss in Boots" plopped down next to us, and Noel Gallagher and Oasis (minus Liam) sat to our left.
"He's still got it," Gallagher told SPIN.com of Young's timeless musicianship. "And most importantly, he still means it."
And he does: Young, 63, ripped through his catalogue, making a joke during After the Gold Rush track "Oh Lonesome Me" by substituting "old" for "oh," and playing lively versions of "Cinnamon Girl" and Powderfinger." His new tunes proved both Young's venomous and tender sides haven't diminished; the gritty guitars of "Cough Up the Bucks" got the crowd pumping fists, and slow-strumming solo electric ballad "Off the Road" had longtime fans questioning their neighbors: "Which album is this on?"
Studio ace Chad Cromwell (drums), longtime collaborator Ben Keith (pedal steel/rhythm guitar), Rick Rosas (bass), Anthony Crawford (piano, guitar), and wife Peggi (piano, background vocals) worked as a seasoned team. And the group -- usually playing within a three-foot radius in the center of the stage -- knew when to give room to Young's stomping solo fits, which highlighted tracks like"Cortez the Killer."
Onstage, a painter laid wide brush strokes on a large canvas. "It's some hippie stuff," Norah Jones whispered to SPIN.com
It certainly was. In his paint-splattered suit jacket, ragged jeans, and tattered tennis shoes, Young, ever the '60s idealist, played pipe organ on "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)," a somber track lamenting the mistreatment of our planet. He strummed out a spot-on rendition of "The Needle and the Damage Done," and showed his chops on the freewheelin' "Cowgirl in the Sand." Call it hippie stuff, but Young's ever-changing style proves his staying power -- especially on the set-closing rendition of the Beatles' 1967 psych-classic "A Day in the Life," which Young transformed into a riotous rocker as he stomped across the stage, screamed into the mic, and shook and rattled his guitar during the song's final, noisy coda until the strings had ripped from the fretboard.
Neil Young setlist:
"Love and Only Love"
"Out of the Blue"
"Everybody Knows This is Nowhere"
"Cortez the Killer"
"Old Lonesome Me"
"Needle and the Damage Done"
"Light a Candle"
"Cough Up the Bucks"
"Hit the Road and Go to Town"
"Heart of Gold"
"Back to the Country"
"Off the Road"
"Sing a Song"
"When Worlds Collide"
"Cowgirl in the Sand"
"Rockin' in the Free World"
"Get Behind the Wheel"
"A Day in the Life"
Neil Young/ Photo by Jonathan Bayer