Neil Young was alone on stage at the Tower Theater on Sunday but surrounded by stuff.
Seated in a semicircle formed by three acoustic guitars and a six-string banjo, the 72-year-old Canadian also kept one baby grand to his right and another to his left, plus an upright piano and pump organ behind him.
The rumpled rock legend came on stage carrying a ukulele. Also close by, for an additional security blanket, was "Woody," the cigar store Indian that's been a familiar sight at his shows for decades.
Young's trademark modus operandi is to follow his muse and act instinctively when inspiration strikes, and surrounding himself with all those old friends puts him in a creative comfort zone.
The career-spanning set was the first of Young's two solo shows at the Tower — where his 2009 concert movie Neil Young Trunk Show was filmed by the late Jonathan Demme — which had been announced only two weeks ago. Tickets remain for Monday night's show, starting at $99.50.
Sunday night's 1-hour, 45-minute show began with a cluster of songs Young performed seated, singing in his sui generis, keening voice, accompanying himself acoustically.
Cornerstones of a half-century career — "Tell Me Why," "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," "The Loner," "Mr. Soul" — were mixed with lesser-knowns, like the opening "Dance, Dance, Dance," a Buffalo Springfield song that, in this strummy version, did not inspire anyone to dance.
Early on, there was also the relative rarity "Homefires," a song that would seem to reveal the musings of a septuagenarian songwriter sharing insights gained over the course of a lifetime: "I'm not the same man I was a while ago / I've learned some things, I hope it shows."
But in fact, the song dates from 1974 and is but another example of Young's lifelong habit of simultaneously living in the moment and taking the long view. That was also true of the set closer, "Old Man," which Young penned when he was 26, and "Love and War," the song from his 2010 Daniel Lanois' collaboration Le Noise in which he philosophized about two subjects that have preoccupied him since his beginnings on "the backstreets of Toronto."
After plucking the aforementioned instrument also known as a "guitjo" on "Mellow My Mind" from 1975's Tonight's the Night, Young appeared to grow restless. He popped up and began meandering around as though asking the assembled instruments which ones wanted to be played next.
It seemed none was speaking to him loudly enough at that moment. (The pump organ, which he often uses for "After the Gold Rush," sadly never get used.)
Instead, he called for an electric guitar, plugged in, and performed his 1970 protest masterwork "Ohio" on a darkened stage with his profile visible as smoke rose around him.
It was a riveting moment. The crowd, respectful but also eager to rock out and bellow, "Neil!," stood in unison. And the countercultural anthem, written in response to the Kent State shootings in 1970, showed it has stood the test of time.
The song is still spine-tingling, with its martial rhythm and insistence that injustice must be confronted and acted upon: "What if you knew her, and found her dead on the ground? How can you run when you know?"
"Ohio" was only one of two plugged-in songs that Young played on electric guitar, the other being "Children of Destiny" from his 2017 album The Visitor. "Children" is a well-meaning protest song, but it demonstrated how Young can be pedantic and unsubtle, with its instructions to "Stand up for what you believe / Resist the powers that be / Preserve the land and seas."
Young is often quite chatty on stage, but he barely spoke to the crowd Sunday. He spent a good long stretch at the piano, delving into deep catalog '70s love songs like "Birds" and "See the Sky About to Rain," the latter of which, according to online setlist compilers, he had not previously performed this century.
In the latter stages of his career, Young's recorded output has been erratic. (Though The Visitor is a rock-solid effort that was made with the Promise of the Real and is worth checking.) But he's remained a riveting live performer all the while, keeping himself and his audience on their toes with quirkiness and unpredictability.