Intimacy cuts both ways. Acoustic instruments, soft tones, delicate timbres -- the "Unplugged" approach reliably draws us close. But, really, communion occurs just as intimately within an ear-piercing, teeth-rattling cacophony.
Neil Young has spent decades swinging between these extremes. During his measured performance Friday night at the Chicago Theatre, his first of two this weekend, he calmly and ably applied both tactics. He spoke to the hooting, sold-out crowd softly, in gentle and sometimes acoustic songs, but occasionally he carried a big, sonic stick. Nothing new, nothing life-altering, just solid and intense.
Alone on stage, with only an array of instruments and a cigar-store Indian as company, Young, now 65, spent much of the evening shuffling back and forth as if he couldn't remember where he'd left something. Dressed in jeans, T-shirt, a white blazer and a Panama hat, he looked every bit the kooky Santa Monica beachcomber. He acted it, too -- frowning at the floor, pacing the stage restlessly between and during songs, muttering to himself and whispering to the Indian.
He began in acoustic mode, harmonica rack around his neck, strumming through three milestones from his iconic career: "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," "Tell Me Why" and "Helpless." From there, the show evolved ever so slowly -- and sometimes dully, with protracted versions of sleepy new songs "Peaceful Valley Boulevard" and "Love and War" -- toward the unity of light words and crushing noise more often showcased on his recent album, "Le Noise," a voice-and-guitar record that succinctly encapsulates his acoustic and electric extremes.
He rang out the chords of "Ohio" on a fat white Gretsch guitar, smacking its hip to rattle the open bass strings. The song burned out and faded into "Sign of Love." It's one of six "Le Noise" tracks in the set, a sweet song about getting close, getting old and holding hands. Intimate and loud -- those bass strings rattled as Young played the song patiently but hard.
Young detoured by working his way through the keyboards on stage -- "Leia" on a spinet piano (an unreleased, jaunty song he dedicated to "all the little people with big smiles ... who wanted to come but couldn't because Mom said no"), "After the Gold Rush" on a pump organ and "I Believe in You" on a baby grand, the surface and sides of which Young rubbed affectionately before and after.
The show ended with the theater vibrating. Young literally was playing his amplifiers. At the end of "Rumblin'," he sustained the final chord and fed it back, swaying between amps to change the tone of the feedback. He rained fuzzy torrents of guitar on "Cortez the Killer," torturing his whammy bar, then tapping, whacking and beating the strings for big, booming force.
The squalls continued through a fiery "Walk With Me," his most energetic playing of the night (finally!). The song is a personal invitation to "walk with me. ... I'm on this journey / I don't want to walk alone," but Young doesn't deliver it in hushed tones. Maximum volume, curtains of distortion, a wail of sound. No one orchestrates noise like Young, and it maintains its own weird intimacy -- the sound surrounding us, squeezing us, compressing the space and intensifying his simple words.
The unassuming Bert Jansch, formerly of Pentangle, opened the show with a smart, confident set of British folk tunes layered with fine acoustic blues.
Neil Young's set list on Friday night:
"My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)"
"Tell Me Why"
"You Never Call"
"Peaceful Valley Boulevard"
"Love and War"
"Down by the River"
"Sign of Love"
"After the Gold Rush"
"I Believe in You"
"Cortez the Killer"
"Walk With Me"