Wild Mercury Sound

Neil Young live in London

John Mulvey

So, the start of Neil Young’s six-night stand in London, and a lot of the schtick will be familiar to anyone who’s read Damien’s review of the Edinburgh show. Neil bumbles around the stage in what we might optimistically call a Proustian reverie, warms his hands on a stage light, plays “Ambulance Blues” and stops time dead in its tracks.

I’m sure plenty of us know he’s been playing “Ambulance Blues” on this bunch of dates, but still, the shock of actually hearing the song live, the way it keeps unravelling, at once elegant and wracked, the way Young lets notes hang in the air, never rushes the next line, is extraordinary. I was playing “On The Beach” this morning at breakfast, and it struck me how much the song suits his older voice; the curious sweetness of its tone, that affecting mix of experience and, perhaps, increased uncertainty which he brings to the song now.

This is my first time seeing Neil Young play under a roof, my previous four or five epiphanies involving giant fields, giant solos and, usually, Crazy Horse. Consequently, it’s also the first time I’ve seen one of his conceptual performance art pieces, which the first acoustic half seems to be. Two mild criticisms: Neil’s dumbshow is endearing, but pure ham; and the paintings which are ferried about the stage by the artists aren’t terribly good.

We can live with this, I think, when the songs have such deathless potency. The clutter of stage gear, the junk accumulated from a lifetime of performance, seems connected with the "Archives" project; maybe when we see the CD-ROM, DVD or whatever format it eventually materialises as, some of this ephemera will be reflected on the disc. The choice of songs also emphasise that sense of arcana, nostalgia, especially “From Hank To Hendrix”, “Old Man” and “Journey Through The Past”, and the unreleased “Sad Movies” and “No One Seems To Know” (according to the internet – and who am I to argue – Young once described this as the sequel to “A Man Needs A Maid”, which is how it’s delivered tonight).

I don’t agree with Damien that this presents Neil as naked, as such: the theatrical elements mean that it’s best to treat all this as a conceptual piece about memory, and reconciling yourself with your own prehistory, rather than an unmediated rooting about in a great man’s psyche. But still, it makes for a remarkable spectacle, especially on that terrific version of “A Man Needs A Maid”, as he flits between surprisingly florid piano and a truly spectral synth line.

There’s a bit more chat, too, much of it expressing a sort of rueful bewilderment at the crowd’s behaviour. Young tells a story about his granny playing piano in Flin Flon, Manitoba, mention of which gets a cheer. “Oh, a lot of folks in from Flin Flon tonight,” he deadpans. Then, a rambling tale about getting busted at the Isle Of Wight festival touches in passing on Joni Mitchell. Much clapping. “That’s cheap,” he observes drolly, “I can get a round of applause just by mentioning people.”

The electric set is pretty similar to Edinburgh, too, and the moment when Young faces down the giant light and solos into it, rapturously, during the gargantuan “No Hidden Path” remains a highlight. A couple of caveats here: why does he have to keep playing “The Believer”, a real weak link on “Chrome Dreams II” (bad enough to have been on “Are You Passionate”, almost); and there are times when I miss the full Crazy Horse experience.

Certainly, Ben Keith and Rick Rosas play beautifully: there’s a great section of “Down By The River” (magnificent, even though they briefly lose their way somewhere in the middle of it) when Young and Keith shut down the effects and bounce clean, cleaving solos off each other. But generally, Keith and Rosas are discreet figures just beyond Young’s hyperactive maelstrom, and I find myself missing those protean huddles which he goes into with Billy Talbot and Poncho Sampredo.

Really, though, picking holes in a gig as great as this seems utterly churlish, when I could be writing about the seething, heavy version of “Mr Soul”, or the gorgeous “Oh, Lonesome Me”, with Keith and Anthony Crawford complementing each other beautifully on piano and organ. Then, finally, there are the encores: “Cinnamon Girl” first, massively expanded by the sort of molten feedback coda that filled “Arc Weld”. A weird painting of a winking dove, with a kind of Hitler fringe, descends from the rafters in the middle of this, and turns out to be concealing another organ. After some confusion as to whether they’re going to keep playing, Keith takes to the organ for a relatively abbreviated, nonetheless ecstatic version of “Like A Hurricane”.

Nothing here suggests to me this is in any way a valedictory tour, an emotional victory lap that some critics are painting it as. Rather, it just seems like Young is drawing new energy from his past, finding new ways to present this most exceptional and volatile of songbooks.

By the end, he looked like he wanted to play all night. Tonight, maybe he will: Allan will be reporting back tomorrow.

ACOUSTIC SET

From Hank To Hendrix
Ambulance Blues
Sad Movies
A Man Needs A Maid
No One Seems To Know
Harvest
Journey Through The Past
Mellow My Mind
Love Art Blues
Don't Let It Bring You Down
Cowgirl In The Sand
Old Man

ELECTRIC SET

Mr. Soul
Dirty Old Man
Spirit Road
Down By The River
Hey Hey, My My
Too Far Gone
Oh, Lonesome Me
The Believer
Powderfinger
No Hidden Path

Cinnamon Girl
Like A Hurricane

Pic credit: PA Photos


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