Young just gets better with age

November 13, 2007


Neil Young has adapted so many radically different guises over his long and storied career that you never know what version of the ever-mutating, often mercurial singer and songwriter may show up in concert.

On Monday, the first of a two-night stand at the Chicago Theatre and the evening of his 62nd birthday, Young took a cue from his classic 1979 concert film ''Rust Never Sleeps,'' performing one set solo acoustic and another full-on electric.

It made sense that Young would reference the ''Rust'' era, since his new album ''Chrome Dreams II'' is a sequel of sorts to a legendary bootleg of that period. And far from presenting a jarring dichotomy, the two-part format was a perfect vehicle to showcase his extraordinary range.

Performing in a setting that evoked the backstage area of an old theater -- a nod to a more recent concert film, last year's Jonathan Demme-directed ''Heart of Gold'' -- Young packed both sets with cuts from deep in his catalog, the better to please hardcore fans, along with a smattering of tunes for the folks who only know him from classic-rock radio.

While the acoustic set boasted plenty of highlights -- among them the lovely ''From Hank to Hendrix,'' the obscure gem ''Love Art Blues'' and a transcendent take on ''A Man Needs A Maid'' -- the second half was even better.

Plugging in, Young fronted a group that included some of his best-ever sidemen -- drummer Ralph Molina, pedal steel player Ben Keith and bassist Rick Rosas -- and mixed greatest hits (''The Loner,'' ''Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere'') with fiery, feedback-drenched assaults on some of the strongest tracks from the new album (''Dirty Old Man,'' ''No Hidden Path'').

Birthday or no, one of Young's strengths is that he's never unduly nostalgic: Unlike so many of his '60s peers, he acknowledges his history while joyfully celebrating his present.

Or, as he sang on ''Ambulance Blues,'' a nugget from the 1974 album ''On the Beach'' resurrected for the acoustic set: ''It's easy to get buried in the past/When you try to make a good thing last.''