“That was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” said one of the thousands of dazed and confused Neil Young fans who poured out of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., Wednesday night. “Weird. But cool.”
That seemed to be the general assessment of the devoted tribe that turned out to see the schizophrenic troubadour and his garage-band buddies in Crazy Horse roll out Mr. Young’s latest: a sort of countrified rock opera, complete with actors, theatrical sets, production numbers, costume changes and giant video screens.
The production is a musically driven story of drugs, murder and environmentalism set in Greendale, a fictional small town that Mr. Young unfolds, song by song.
The story, not surprisingly considering the erratic nature of some of Mr. Young’s more exotic projects in the past, is an incomprehensible mess. There’s a beautiful teenage girl, a cheerleader who wants to see the world. There’s a drug dealer who kills a cop. There’s a tall cowboy who rescues the girl. Then they leave for Alaska in a rattling old pickup to keep the oil companies from raping the wilderness.
The vignettes, with actors lip-syncing dialogue sung by Mr. Young, unfolded in and around the band, off the side and on an elevated stage that rose magically behind the drum riser. At one point, the devil himself, in a bright red jacket and bright red shoes, shimmied across the stage in a kind of modified Bob Fosse jazz number.
The 10-song cycle wraps up with almost 50 people — including Mr. Young; Crazy Horse; an air-guitar band pretending to be Crazy Horse; stripping police officers; people carrying flags; and dozens of dancers, backup singers and actors — onstage, jumping up and down, waving their arms and singing some sort of “We Are the World”-style eco-anthem. The only thing missing was Quincy Jones.
“Save the planet for another day,” Mr. Young pleaded over and over, and heck, who can argue?
No one, to be sure, in Merriweather Post, where the tribe roared its approval by standing long and yelling loud — never mind those, like my companion, who wondered if the crowd’s enthusiasm for the apparent finale was in any way related to the fact that it was, so obviously, a finale.
If the story was something of a joke — it’s Neil Young … who knows? — the music, fortunately, was not.
The songs, from the beautiful opener, “Falling From Above,” to the stage-filling finale, “Be the Rain,” showcased Mr. Young’s undiminished skills as musical adventurer.
Who else would have his roadies haul a huge pipe organ — it looked as if it had been borrowed from the PTL Club — so he could play one song, a moving, mournful country dirge called “Bringing Down Dinner” about an old man dying on his front porch?
All the new songs had the jangly, country flavor of Young records such as 1992’s “Harvest Moon,” but onstage the simple slices of Americana — filled out by the 57-year-old guitarist’s majestic fretwork and Crazy Horse’s pounding, driving rhythm section — seemed to grow, verse by verse and chord by chord.
The songs, which will be compiled on an album, “Greendale,” due in August, touched on everything from Mr. Young’s concerns about Big Brother in the wake of September 11 to his well-documented distaste for corporate America and the media.
At one point in the show, standing before a giant video billboard featuring the words “Support Our War,” Mr. Young pointedly asked: “What do you think?”
The audience’s confused response — halfhearted booing and lukewarm cheering — drew a bemused smile from the rock legend.
A few moments later, introducing a song about the death of a small-town cop, he shared his own somewhat anachronistic ambivalence with the crowd.
“Lot of people just think hippies are good and cops are bad. But there’s a big gray area there, a big gray area. But I don’t know about that,” he said, drawing laughter. “I don’t know about that.”
The vocal contingent of Young fans who turned out to hear “My, My, Hey, Hey,” were rewarded when Mr. Young and his band mates returned to the stage for an extended encore that included a feedback-enhanced, hair-straightening version of that classic along with “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.”
Fans who got to the show early caught a scintillating set from alternative country queen Lucinda Williams and her band.
The beautiful, tree-filled park around Merriweather’s stage was the perfect setting for Miss Williams’ Louisiana blues-country wail and the smoky licks served up by guitarist Doug Pettibone.
Miss Williams played songs from her latest release, “World Without Tears,” and the title track from 2001’s “Essence,” but the highlight was her raucous Stones-doing-honky-tonk take on “I Lost It,” a gem that was on her 1980 masterpiece, “Happy Woman Blues,” and on 1998’s “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.”