Neil Young in Helsinki in July 2008.
1. “Down by the River” — Big Sur, Calif.; September 1969
This early Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young performance exemplifies what makes this foursome great together: tangled vocal harmonies, three raging guitars, intricate storytelling, and fringed suede jackets. Plus, they’re surrounded by twirling, joint-smoking flower children.
2. “Helpless” — Massey Hall, Toronto, January 1971
Young’s solo acoustic show in Toronto in 1971 is widely considered one of his best, and the despondence of “Helpless” is highlighted in the simplicity and solitude of his Massey Hall performance. Listen to the later-released live album in full here.
3. “Ohio” — Massey Hall, Toronto, January 1971
Young is often most masterful stripped down, and this telling of the 1970 massacre at Kent State University in Ohio without Crosby, Stills, and Nash is chilling with just him and his guitar.
4. “Old Man” — BBC in Concert, London, February 1971
This performance has a youthful Young drawing parallels between himself and the caretaker of his recently purchased Broken Arrow Ranch — a treat to hear when the words were still so new to his repertoire. Watch Young’s entire eight-song solo concert at the BBC here.
5. “Heart of Gold” — BBC in Concert, London, February 1971
This version of “Heart of Gold” depicts the early days of Young’s one-man band: just his voice, his acoustic guitar, and a harmonica.
6. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” — Wembley Stadium, London, September 1974
Here’s Young with CSN again, inviting the crowd to sing along with this oft-covered, country-influenced song about heartache.
7. “Like a Hurricane” — Cow Palace, San Francisco, 1978
From his fall 1978 Rust Never Sleeps Tour, this performance eventually made its way onto the much-loved Live Rust live album.
8. “I Am a Child” — Rust Never Sleeps Tour, 1978
Gangly and clad in all white, Young looks like a child dwarfed by his guitar until he opens his mouth, releasing his twangy alto.
9. “The Needle and the Damage Done” — Live Aid, Philadelphia, July 1985
This version of “The Needle and the Damage Done” demonstrates Young’s ability to command a crowd of thousands, even while he’s singing about dark subjects like addiction.
10. “Cortez the Killer” — North American Tour, 1991
All of Young’s best skills collide in this performance of “Cortez the Killer”: his brilliant musicianship, deft storytelling, and faculty for keeping a crowd interested during a nearly 10-minute track.
11. “Harvest Moon” — MTV Unplugged, February 1993
This rendition of “Harvest Moon” is made all the more romantic by the intimate audience and backing female vocals, courtesy of pop singer Nicolette Larson and Young’s half-sister Astrid Young.
12. “After the Gold Rush” — Farm Aid; Tinley Park, Ill.; October 1998
Neil Young solo with an organ. Enough said.
Read more about the Farm Aid benefit concert, which Young founded with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp in September 1985 to help raise money for family farmers around the United States, here.
13. “Southern Man” — 2000 Tour
Even after more than 30 years, the CSNY vocal harmonies are unsurpassed.
14. “Powderfinger” — Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival; Manchester, Tenn.; June 2003
A delicious fusion of country, folk, and rock, this performance of “Powderfinger” with Crazy Horse is nice and mellow — everything Bonnaroo is supposed to be.
15. “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” — Farm Aid; Columbus, Ohio; September 2003
This electric performance with Crazy Horse essentially makes concrete the fact that Neil Young is the human embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll, and that he can still rock the hell out of a guitar.
16. “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” — Glastonbury Festival; Glastonbury, England; June 2009
Off 1989’s Freedom, “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” is the perfect example of Young’s politicized rock music, and this version shows him continuing to rock well into his old age, captivating a crowd of nearly 200,000 people at Glastonbury.
17. “Sugar Mountain” — Bridge School Benefit; Shoreline Ampitheatre, Mountain View, Calif.; October 2011
This version of “Sugar Mountain” has Young playfully singing one of his earliest songs to children onstage at the annual Bridge School benefit concert, which he and his wife Pegi organized starting in 1986 to serve children with severe physical and speech impairments.
18. “Cinnamon Girl” — O2 Arena, London, June 2013
Easily one of Young’s most popular rock tracks, “Cinnamon Girl” with backing from Crazy Horse is as rich and rocking as ever in its 2013 incarnation.
19. And, for good measure, “Neil Young” doing Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” with David Crosby and Graham Nash
After all, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.