Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Return of Neil Young

When Neil Young appeared at Carnegie Hall in November, 1970, he was already the most broadly admired and credible of top music's chroniclers of pastoral retreat. Like so many people who don't like the city, he proved uncomfortable even in his own crowd, leaving the stage for an hour's huff when he adjudged the audience too raucous for the solo, acoustic set he had planned. Apparently, however, he did his reputation here no harm. Last night he was back at Carnegie for his first New York area appearance since then. Tonight he will appear at Nassau Coliseum, and tomorrow at Madison Square Garden. All 40,000 seats have been sold for weeks. There hasn't been a hotter ticket since the Rolling Stones.

Last night's fans were also noisy--and friendly--but this time Young was ready for them. After moving unruffled through a few solo numbers, first with guitar and harmonica and then with piano, he brought on the manpower--Jack Nitzsche on keyboards, then Ben Keith on pedal steel guitar, Tim Drummond on bass, and Ken Buttrey on drums. Although all four had impressive studio credentials, only Nitzsche has achieved much status on his own, but that will change. Not even Crazy Horse did as much for Young's brooding, rather ominous rock style.

Young hasn't rocked unreservedly since his second album--he now has five--and it was good to hear that music so clear and unabashed again. There is no rock 'n' roll remotely like it--undeniably hard yet never heavy-metal, country-tinged without a hint of rockabilly good times. Like Young the singer and Young the stage personality, Young the rock musician manages to be mad and self-possessed at the same time. Presented with a hook line as compelling as that of "The Loner"--or "Southern Man" or "Cinnamon Girl" or "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere"--the average rock group would play till the rafters cracked.

Young has so many he can throw them away. None of those songs lasted five minutes last night. And while he teased us with familiar stuff, Young tested new material, most memorably a sardonic guide to America for returning Vietnam vets called "Hello Joe."

Songs like "Hello Joe" are what makes Young so attractive. He is in retreat, yes, but he always struggles to create contact between his often remote private reality and the world of public events. It must be added, however, that on first hearing some of the newer songs, including "Hello Joe," achieved that synthesis as fully as the older ones. Clearly, Young has decided not to be as insular this time around as he was the last, but the decision must have been a difficult one, for if this was the most exciting big name concert I've seen since the Stones, it was one of the most frustrating I've ever seen.

As I said, Young commands an enormous repertoire of hypnotic songs, and performing so many of them so concisely he built up considerable tension. That tension could only have been relieved by stretching out on one climatic riff, perhaps "Cowgirl in the Sand" or "Down by the River." Instead, after an hour and 20 minutes of music that included one 10-minute encore, Young left the stage, done for the night. I felt very let down, and I didn't pay $7.50 for my ticket. I hope Carnegie was just a warmup for the big arenas to come. But I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't.

N'day, Jan. 22, 1973