WORCESTER - You think you know Neil Young by now, and then he plays a show that leaves you slack-jawed by his conviction to shake things up. Young has released several live recordings over the years, but none of them could have foretold the onslaught of raw energy and guitar heroics he unleashed at the DCU Center Saturday night.
When Young performed a three-night stand at the Orpheum Theatre last year, the idea was that you sat and listened to him as he pulled acoustic guitars from a stand right beside him. At the DCU Center, Young was clearly there to rock out, thrashing through a two-hour-plus set that struck a good balance between the classics ("Old Man," "Heart of Gold," "The Needle and the Damage Done") and newer material ("Spirit Road," the unreleased "Just Singing a Song Won't Change the World").
Young, 63, was relentless in the heavy distortion and feedback he coaxed from his battered guitars as he dived headlong into the opening "Love and Only Love," which led to "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" and "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere."
Giant video screens occasionally zoomed in on Young's face scrunched into a scowl as he worked out expansive, and rather experimental, guitar solos. In jeans and a paint-splattered blazer, featuring a "Hippies for Obama" button, he looked self-possessed, playing with the zeal of an 18-year-old who just rediscovered his electric guitar in the closet.
He let up just a bit with the sublime "Oh, Lonesome Me," sliding on an acoustic guitar and harmonica. A brooding, 13-minute take on "Cortez the Killer" morphed into various shades of melodic noise, the perfect set-up for "Cinnamon Girl."
Young got behind a massive organ for a poignant rendition of "Mother Earth (Natural
Perhaps to prove his point, Young kept resuscitating the ending of "Rockin' in the Free World," starting up the chorus again and again to comic effect. In a truly surreal encore, Young and his tight band returned to play the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," which was nearly unrecognizable as they worked themselves into a psychedelic fever pitch. Deep into a punishing solo, Young finally reduced his electric guitar to a pile of broken guitar strings and looked pleased by what he had done.
Young was so vital, so intense, that he completely eclipsed his opening acts. On paper, Wilco seemed like the perfect band to get the night rolling, but the country-rockers tended to play it a little safe on fan favorites "Forget the Flowers" and "I'm the Man Who Loves You." And Everest, as promising as it was, seemed swallowed whole by the arena setting that Young would later galvanize.
James Reed can be reached at email@example.com.