Neil Young Travels Back to 1973 at Transcendent 50th-Anniversary Concert at the Roxy

Autism Speaks Light Up The Blues 6 Concert - Credit: Harmony Gerber/Getty Images
Autism Speaks Light Up The Blues 6 Concert - Credit: Harmony Gerber/Getty Images

Fifty years to the day after Neil Young and the Santa Monica Flyers performed at the opening of the Roxy in Los Angeles — a night that looms large in rock & roll lore thanks to decades of bootlegs — the curtain rose at the L.A. club to reveal Young and his bandmates back on the same stage. He was perched behind the piano on the far right side, tickling out the opening notes of “Tonight’s the Night” to a packed audience of VIPs and fans who’d paid $1,000 a ticket, with all proceeds going to children in need through the Bridge School and the Painted Turtle.

It was the start of a transcendent evening, featuring complete performances of 1975’s Tonight’s The Night and 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, two of Young’s greatest albums. The show marked not only the first time he’d ever gone back and played a classic album start-to-finish, let alone two of them, but the first time he’d performed several Tonight’s the Night songs at all in 50 years. And one Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere deep cut hadn’t been touched since the original studio session 54 years ago.

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Prior to the show, Young told fans via his website that the show would feature only music from Tonight’s the Night and earlier. He also wrote just a few days ago that he planned on playing two albums. Astute fans deduced that Tonight’s the Night and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere were the likeliest candidates, but it still didn’t quite sink in that this was really happening until “Tonight’s the Night” transitioned directly into “Speakin’ Out” and “World On a String.” At that point, the hardcore fans pressed up against the stage were literally quivering with shock and delight that they were able to witness this moment up close.

The Santa Monica Flyers were basically just another name for Crazy Horse after guitarist Danny Whitten died of a heroin overdose in 1972, and Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith stepped in to fill the void alongside drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot. Molina is now 80 years old, and Talbot is weeks away from becoming an octogenarian himself, but both men recreated their original parts with stunning precision and seemed ageless while doing it. Sadly, Ben Keith died in 2010, so Micah Nelson, who has been playing with Young in Promise of the Real for the better part of a decade, was there to fill in. He knows the music inside and out, and he clearly brushed up on his lap steel for the songs that required him to directly take on Keith’s famous parts.

Nils Lofgren, meanwhile, wasn’t originally supposed to be part of this show, since the E Street Band had gigs booked this week, but his schedule cleared when Bruce Springsteen’s peptic ulcer flared up. This was quite the bummer for Bruce fans that had tickets to his shows this month, but it was a godsend for everyone at the Roxy, since Lofgren’s piano, vocals, and guitar are all over Tonight’s the Night. He spent much of the show on the piano, just as he did at the original Tonight’s the Night shows back in 1973, though it was sometimes hard to hear what he was doing despite his pleas to the sound crew to turn him up in the mix. (In a nice nod to the aficionados in the audience, a pair of glittery platform boots were nailed to the piano, just like in 1973.)

“Borrowed Tune” was the first of several “Oh, shit!” moments of the night, since it was last played in January 1973 by the Stray Gators on the Time Fades Away tour, before the Santa Monica Flyers even formed later that year. (It’s sort of amazing that the Rolling Stones didn’t sue him over that one, since he admits in the lyrics that he directly ripped off the melody from “Lady Jane.”) That was followed up with an oddly joyous “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown,” with Micah Nelson handling Danny Whitten’s original vocal parts. (His ability to step into the shoes of any absent or departed band member is quite remarkable, especially when you consider that Nelson has spent the past couple of weeks battling a rough case of vestibular neuritis that left him dizzy and barely able to walk at times.)

A tender rendition of “New Mama” was dedicated to Young’s eldest son, Zeke, who was in the audience. That led right into the first “Lookout Joe” since August 1973, and the first “Tired Eyes” since November 1973. The latter song tells the tale of a cocaine deal that left four men dead. “Please take my advice,” Young pleads in vain to the entire drug culture of the time, which was growing increasingly violent and desperate. “Open up the tired eyes.” It’s one of the darkest moments on the album, and it’s easy to understand why he put it aside for all these years, but hearing it again was extremely moving.

The Tonight’s the Night portion of the evening ended with an extended reprise of the title track, and Young back at the piano. Time and time again, he returned to the opening verse (“Bruce Berry was a working man/He used to load that Econoline van”), as if he didn’t want it to end.

These are heavy songs. They grow heavier when you think of all the other losses that Young has gone through since the album came out, including those of David Crosby, Elliot Roberts, David Briggs, Pegi Young, Ben Keith, Rick Rosas, Tim Drummond, Bruce Palmer, Dewey Martin, and Larry Johnson. That added context for an album that’s already about grief could have made for a maudlin set, but that’s not how it felt. There was a joy in the air the entire time. It was a joy that four of the five men who played the Roxy back in 1973 were somehow still around 50 years later to once again play this music and honor everyone they lost. The passage of time turned songs of loss into songs of survival, and it felt like everyone Young lost was hovering above the stage, looking down.

Amazingly, that was just the first half of the show. After a very brief break, they came back to play Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere straight through. “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down by the River,” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” were familiar to anyone who’s been to a Young concert in the past five decades, and they were all excellent this evening, but the lesser-known songs from the tracklist were the real standouts. “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long)” had never been even attempted live, since backup singer Robin Lane’s vocal parts were so prominent on the album, but Neil and his band worked out a fantastic acoustic arrangement, and Molina handled Lane’s harmonies with ease. “Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)” appeared in acoustic form at a couple of 2019 solo shows, but this was Young’s first time playing it with a band. They nailed it, even though Molina and Talbot last played those parts in the early weeks of the first Nixon administration.

Complete-album shows have been a big part of classic-rock tours for the past 20 years. Everyone from Brian Wilson to Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, the Eagles, the Who, Roger Waters, and Mötley Crüe have used them to sell more tickets and up their prices. Young resisted the trend for years, and only succumbed for a charity show at a tiny club commemorating a major anniversary with hardly any advance fanfare. (There’s a second Roxy show on Thursday evening that will likely have a similar or identical setlist.)

And even though he could make a fortune taking this show to arenas and festivals all across the world, don’t expect that to happen. Odds are high that Young is never doing this again after this week. But there was a tiny 4K camera tied to a sandbag in the front of the stage, and Daryl Hannah was filming with a handheld on the side. Let’s hope they find a way to release the footage from this show at some point. It was way too special an evening to only be experienced by the lucky few inside the Roxy.

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