1989 was a year for the history books: Tiny cracks in the Iron Curtain grew into a chasm that brought down the Berlin Wall; a pro-democracy movement in China, known now as the Tiananmen Square protests, ended in bloodshed; and, closer to home, the mercurial-tempered Ron Hextall of the Philadelphia Flyers became the first goalie in history to score a goal in the playoffs. Oh, and I saw Neil Young for the first time.
The date: June 10, 1989. The place: Bally’s Grandstand Under the Stars in Atlantic City. As I remember it – and I was only there two or three times – the open-air venue consisted of very steep bleachers placed in front of a stage. The Atlantic Ocean served as the backdrop.
The Indigo Girls opened with a concise set that, despite the dreaded opening-act slot, was quite good. Folks flowed into the makeshift coliseum, their shoes and boots clanging on the metal steps (or maybe that’s my memory playing tricks on me), while Amy Ray and Emily Saliers sang with confidence. Their voices carried like Aimee Mann’s with ’Til Tuesday, sweet and spot-on from the opening “Closer to Fine” to the closing “Strange Fire.” Amy Ray, as I remember it, hit home runs with “Secure Yourself” and “Kid Fears.”
By nine, or thereabouts, the sun had set and Neil, wearing a Chinese worker’s cap, strolled out. It was basically a solo acoustic show, though he was joined by Ben Keith and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro for a few songs.
After closing the ‘70s on the back-to-back high notes of Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust, Neil embarked on a decade-long journey that veered from hard rock to techno to rockabilly to country to horn-driven R&B; and that had left him, for many (though not me), an afterthought. Along the way, he was sued by his new record company, Geffen Records, for not sounding like himself. It was a surreal time to be him, to be sure, and no more surreal than the year before when, after returning to the Reprise label, he scored a surprise hit – his first of the decade – with the satirical “This Note’s for You.”
Anyway, by the time my friends and I had clomped up the bleachers to our seats that late-spring night, Neil was back to being Neil – not that he’d stopped, of course, but he was mining a more familiar terrain.
Forget the fact that the show was “acoustic”; it was as electric a set as I’ve seen. Neil prowled the stage with a handless microphone strapped to his face, his guitar a shield and a weapon at the same time. He opened with a sterling “Hey Hey My My (Out of the Blue)” and followed with a fierce “Rockin’ in the Free World,” turning the satirical knife he’d wielded on “This Note’s for You” on George H.W. Bush’s “kinder, gentler nation.” His guitar on “Crime in the City” was like a machete, the chords chopping at one’s knees, while the harmonica worked like a blackjack and blunted the back of one’s head. Other highlights included an unsentimental presentation of “Sugar Mountain”; the one-two punch of “The Needle & the Damage Done” and “No More”; and a heart-thumping “Ohio” that he dedicated to the students slain in China’s Tiananmen Square less than a week before – everyone was on their feet, fists in the air and lungs as one while we shouted the lyrics. Incredible, that’s how I remember it. Just incredible. A second stab at “Rockin’ in the Free World” was followed by the night’s final number, ““Powderfinger.” “Red means run, son,” takes on a new meaning in the context of Tiananmen Square, if you think about it.
The Philadelphia Inquirer carried this review in its (Monday) June 12th edition:
Neil Young: My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)/Rockin’ in the Free World/Comes a Time/Sugar Mountain/Pocahontas/Helpless/Crime in the City/For the Turnstiles/This Old House/Roll Another Number/Too Far Gone/This Note’s for You/The Needle and the Damage Done/No More/After the Gold Rush/Heart Of Gold/Ohio/Rockin’ in the Free World//Powderfinger
Indigo Girls: Closer to Fine/Secure Yourself/Love’s Recovery/Kid Fears/Land of Canaan/Prince of Darkness/Strange Fire