(Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, Thursday Nov. 29.)
During the second or third guitar excursion of “Walk Like a Giant” Thursday at the Wells Fargo Center, Neil Young veered into one of his favorite zones – that place where the crude sound of an overdriven and distorted guitar is transformed into something unexpectedly elegant, a rich array of tone and texture.
Under the watchful eyes of busy labcoated technicians (including one seated at an onstage desk), Young and Crazy Horse ventured into the first of several unapologetically arty extended explorations. It's part of the deal when Young performs with Crazy Horse: Everything, the new tunes and the big hits, is fair game for a complete overhaul.
Young often accomplishes this with long forays in which the guitar signal is modified slowly over time: He’ll seize a single tone from the tangled spectrum of a chord, and manipulate it using distortion boxes and other pedals until new sonic dimensions emerge from the thick shadows. Thursday, he started with the typical “crunch” of rhythm guitar, then gave it a nasty serrated edge that terrorized the ear like sandpaper on a pillow. He held that as a drone, and if you listened closely, you could hear an orchestra vying for attention inside it – upper string harmonics that resembled shrieking violins in nosebleed range, brutal helicoptering low tones that punctuated the air with tympani-drum thunder, and plenty shades (and shards) of errant rumbling in between.
Some in the crowd grew restless during that journey and a few other marathons (including an equally blown-open version of “Like a Hurricane”). For me, these wailing, formidable planks of instrumental texture were highlights, in part because they stood in powerful contrast to Young’s easygoing melodies and tender-hearted lyrics. Singing to be not simply understood but felt, he’d drop some profound notion – like the verse in “Walk Like a Giant” that expresses regret over his generation’s inability to fully change society – and then, capitalizing on his listener’s openness, slam the point home with a furious primal fire that is unlike any other in rock. It was the kind of yin/yang head/heart assault that rearranges your innards on a molecular level, shakes you up, leaves you somehow changed. If it’s been awhile since you had that experience at an arena rock show, go see Neil Young and Crazy Horse. While you can.