Out on the Weeknight 

Neil Young will play the organ when he damn well feels like it.

"I got a lot of equipment," Neil Young notes, in classic understatement. "Never can tell when a safari's gonna come up."

If indeed a safari arises, Mr. Young, in the midst of a solo acoustic gig at Berkeley's Community Theater, is surrounded onstage by six guitars, a banjo, myriad harmonicas, two pianos (one grand, one upright), and an ornate pipe organ. The setup looks patently ridiculous. Delightfully so.

"Are you going to write that Neil Young is the coolest person ever?" asks the twentysomething lass next to me.

As a matter of fact, I am. Neil Young is the coolest person ever. Why? Because he never touched at least two guitars, the upright piano, and the organ. True rock deification arises when you've got enough clout to drag a Guitar Center's worth of gear onstage, arrange it just so, and then play, oh, half of it. Neil is just thrilled by the idea that he could play the organ, if he so desired. We also are thrilled by that prospect, and highly amused at the notion that he might not, and in fact did not.

I can find a poignant metaphor in all this. I just know it.

"You know, we're the youngest people here," the woman adds. "By decades."

Correct.

"Heyyy, you're sittin' right behind Wavy Gravy!" notes the usher as the enchanted evening begins. And there he sits in Hawaiian shirt and vacationing-dad hat, a shock of white hair separating the two, looking like Anthony Hopkins in disguise in Hannibal. His puffy-bearded companion, who is wearing a rainbow baseball cap -- complete with a neon-green propeller -- quietly reads a comic book.

Wavy is busy regaling fellow patrons with medical/debauchery stories. "I came to handcuffed to a bed in SF General Hospital," goes one punchline. Behind me, meanwhile, two dudes discuss pre-menopausal versus post-menopausal women, and the effect of the latter state on lubrication. I lack the guile to make up something like this.

I also need to get the fuck out of here.

But soon the show begins, and my unease dissolves. In addition to a three-act main event headlined by Mr. Safari, this Wednesday night affair includes lotsa multicultural sideshows: a Native American peace-pipe dance ceremony, a soulful slide guitarist crooning about her North Carolina Indian tribe ancestry, a Bay Area martial-arts-for-youth program dancin' and hiii-yaaain'.

Also, Joanna Newsom. The Pokémonian harpist has entered Phase Two of her plan for world domination, whereupon she enchants our fair nation's cultural elite -- The New York Times, The Believer, Dave Eggers himself. The fun now lies in watching a rather large roomful of folks caught completely unawares reacting to her.

To break it down in pie-chart form:

20 percent: "What is wrong with her voice?"

15 percent: "Did she just use the word "dirigible'?"

12.5 percent: "Is playing a harp like that legal?"

30 percent: (Baseball-cap propeller spins rapidly.)

22.5 percent: "Sweet Jesus, this is still pretty rad."

Count both myself and Wavy Gravy in this latter category -- he nearly jumped elatedly out of his seat every time Joanna hit one of her megahigh notes, as though the dude were watching Alien vs. Predator. Joannamania is getting to be a bit too much, but we shall wait patiently while you dig up a better, weirder power ballad than "Clam Crab Cockle Cowrie." You know where to find us.

"Oh my god, he looks exactly the same," a woman gasped as Jonathan Richman sidled onstage, indeed looking like someone's gawky prom date. The gentleman has already been praised extensively in this space, so we will merely note that said praise is entirely deserved, that Johnny's latest tricks involve impersonating squabbling couples in multiple languages, and that no matter how many times I hear it, I still write the same lyrical fragment in my notebook: When demolishing an old building brings the smell of 1890 to the breeze.

It must be said, though, that wide-eyed, awestruck Jonathan Richman is an awfully odd choice to directly precede Neil Young, who is gruff and reserved as a matter of public policy. Aside from his safari declaration and a brief interlude in which he admired the bullet hole in one of his twelve guitars, Neil rolled in and out like a hurricane, though a primarily benevolent one. He menacingly slapped his guitar in war-dance time to lend gravity to "Pocahontas," but from then on he got all swoony, punctuating "Harvest Moon" with those chill-inducing harmonica stabs and triggering a massive romantic swoonfest with the majestic "Birds": When you see me/Fly away without you/Shadow on the things you know/Feathers fall around you/And show you the way to go/It's over, it's over. Good gravy.

Neil hauled his wife Pegi onstage for a healthy portion of the proceedings to add harmless backing vocals to the corny hound-dog banjo jam "Old King" and so forth. Everyone was buzzily enjoying themselves, Neil's absurd instrumental cabal suggesting we were in for a long-ass night. But an hour or so in, he and Pegi abruptly waved goodbye and walked offstage, as though concerned that maybe they'd missed the Desperate Housewives premiere. (Wrong night, folks.) A standing O dragged 'em back for "Field of Opportunity" (more hound-dog silliness) and "Comes a Time" (more romantic swooning), but then they fled again and threw the house lights up besides.

Ah, but the crowd could not be sated: "The organ, Neil!" Wavy Gravy shouted. "The organ!" Good point, clown. And though Neil ignored it, he did oblige to saunter back out and throw us "Heart of Gold" as though we'd just offered him a copy of Street Spirit -- grudgingly -- but it was stirring all the same. And then off he wandered, for good this time -- to safari, or perhaps to hit on Joanna Newsom -- leaving us to bathe in the afterglow of the coolest person ever. Maybe next time he'll bring a drum kit along.

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