CLEARWATER — Neil Young has packed a cavalcade of clashing personalities into his 64 years: folk singer, rock star, surly activist, harvest-moon romantic. He is a man of myriad moods, of mercurial spikes. He has a voice made for Sundays and a mug made for breaking up bar fights, and you never know when the Canadian iconoclast will go surly or warble sweet nothings.
At a sold-out Ruth Eckerd Hall on Wednesday, in front of 2,180 well-heeled hippies vociferously ecstatic at seeing a major figure on a small stage, the solo Young was intense and brooding, but also crowd-pleasing and playful, mixing in sing-along hits with buzzy political cuts from new album Le Noise. It was a 90-minute who's-who of Young personae.
Keeping the audience off-balance but enthralled — I repeat: this was a odd yet strangely beautiful night — Young's first order of push-me-pull-you was inviting New Orleans piano legend Allen Toussaint as opening act. The 72-year-old charmer, his gray hair betraying his youthful fingers, gave a toe-tappin' tutorial in Crescent City boogie, from the playful notes of Java to the smirking lyrics of Mother-in-Law and Working in the Coalmine.
If Toussaint was a gracious, good-time host, Young was the lonesome stranger in from the cold. Opening with My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue) picked on an acoustic guitar, the restless rocker spent 90 minutes wandering about his spare stage — scattered amps, instruments, candles, a cigar-store Indian — with creepy-cool lighting cues pulsing where he roamed.
Helpless, from his Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young days, was also delivered unplugged, but the somber one-two of Peaceful Valley Blvd. and Love and War was chilly with reverb. Then it got even louder, the electric guitar crunching almighty on Down by the River, the drug-fueled cautionary tale of the new Hitchhiker and the still painfully relevant Ohio.
The show's eerie highlight was After the Gold Rush, as perfect a song as there is, delivered via a pump organ that hummed like a haunted calliope and sounded straight from some underwater realm, albeit one where people still feel "like getting high" (cue thunderous hippie-crowd approval).
Young didn't say a lot, although at one point he sat down at Toussaint's piano, rubbed it like a talisman and intoned, "Give me some of that, please."
But you could tell he was into it, unveiling Cinnamon Girl and Old Man with every muscle, as if he were being controlled by puppeteers. Young is an odd dude for sure, but he's endlessly fascinating — no matter who he happens to be.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.