Live review

Neil Young -- London Hammersmith Apollo, March 16 2008

Neil Young, like Dylan, has a lot to live up to. Most obviously, he has to contend with his own reputation, and the expectations of his audience: two things which are not entirely compatible.

Still, there is something odd about the way he sets up for the acoustic part of the show. With the broken theatre lights at the back of the stage, and the sense of clutter, it looks as if it’s designed to give the suggestion of a man looking back from the end of his career, alighting on memories, and finding new significance in things he’d forgotten. This may be an accurate representation of the state of Young’s mind as he curates his back catalogue in preparation for the release of his extensive Archives project, but it doesn’t always encourage a sense of intimacy. The set design adds a layer of theatricality, and the painter at the back left of the stage seems to represent the act of creation – but none of this is as helpful as, let’s say, speaking to the audience, or explaining the context of the songs, some of which are pretty obscure. (Incidentally, The Clash employed graffiti artist Futura 2000 to paint the backdrop on the Sandinista! tour, but his art was more dynamic, and more in tune with the spirit of the music).

It is a reverential crowd. Neil gets a standing ovation before he does anything. He gets a cheer when he drinks a glass of water. And when he plays, the audience is so quiet that you can hear every cough and wheeze. When things get this precious, the quality of the songs is laid bare, and it doesn’t always help. As a writer, Young has always prized sincerity over poetry, and some of his lyrics can be a little gauche. But the acoustic set does seem to be telling a story of sorts. "From Hank To Hendrix" has him “with this old guitar, doin’ what I do”, while the line “it’s easy to get buried in the past” jumps out from the beautiful desolation of "Ambulance Blues". It is a treat to hear this song live, and it shows how, even as a young man, Neil sounded old and dismayed, circling around burnout.

"Kansas" has a thin tune and bitter lyric (“I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream”), while "Sad Movies" is more straightforwardly autobiographical. On earlier dates in the tour he explained how he wrote it about his movie-going days in Toronto, but in this setting, the words play into the theme of a man examining a life of performance: “Black and white, the exit lights up in the balcony, looking for someone to feel for a while”. "Mexico" sounds weary (“the feeling’s gone, why is it so hard to hang on?”), and "A Man Needs A Maid" with a slight "I Don’t Like Mondays" feel on the piano, gets a big cheer.

Finally, in response to a shout of “Old Man”, Neil speaks. “Time’s funny,” he says, “sometimes it’s standing still, sometimes, it’s going like hell. I like it though. The older I get, the better I feel.” And then he plays "Harvest", and it’s only at this point that he truly starts to overcome the self-consciousness of the setting. It is tremendous – sad and wistful, and Neil himself seems to spark into life. Suddenly he can’t stop talking – reprising the story of his Granny Jean (mentioned in John’s earlier review), who worked in a copper mining town, checking the tags of the miners as they came back above ground. “She was a valued member of the community, but more than that, she played a helluva honky tonk piano”. And Neil plays "Journey Through The Past", his hands rolling over the keys like a saloon bar entertainer.

It’s a sentimental journey. He picks up the banjo. Put it down. “It comes down to: would you rather hear about plant life or dogs? That’s the way government works, isn’t it?” He plays "Homegrown". Afterwards, he says he used to think it was a drug song. Then he thought it was about food, and how people could eat healthily, “Then fuel – growing plants and using ‘em in cars. That’s pretty good.” He hesitates. “That’ll never work. They’re all over that… so all you get’s a stupid song and all this information”. He rambles on endearingly, losing his way. “I’m losing the whole audience,” he says. “Thank God it doesn’t matter!”

More evidence that he is curating the soundtrack to his life? The lyric of "Love Art Blues": “My songs are all so long and my words are all too sad – why must I choose between the best things I ever had”. "Old Man": in which the young Neil compares himself to a codger, and he here he is, singing it when he’s old. He hasn’t touched some of these songs for years, and age has changed them. The words mean different things.

The electric set is something else. Suddenly, the theatricality doesn’t matter. After all that introspection, the second half is about the joy of noise, and it’s still a thrill to hear that heavy guitar sound. It’s isn’t metal – it’s live rust, a corrosive, crumbling noise that sticks to your skin. It doesn’t even matter much when the song is bad (thank you, "Dirty Old Man"), Young and his band play them as if they are controlling the weather, with the emphasis on thunder. "Powderfinger" is a terrific example of the raw power of riffing, but the show hits the heights with "Hey Hey My My", a quite preposterous celebration of the power of rock’n’roll which makes perfect sense, with Young careening off into a jet engine guitar solo, and the crowd doing call and response on the line about Johnny Rotten.

"Too Far Gone" is a step down in intensity, but leads perfectly into Young’s reworked version of "Oh Lonesome Me" (“one of the greatest sets of lyrics I ever heard"), stretched out from Don Gibson’s original into an achingly sad song, with Young’s voice almost snapping on the chorus. And that leads into a fantastic version of "Winterlong" (“for Danny Whitten”); all grungy sadness, with lovely steel guitar and plaintive melodies. It doesn’t get any better, though the second encore of "Tonight’s The Night" comes pretty close.

The show ends where Young’s career began, with the surf instrumental, "The Sultan", which he recorded with the Squires. Not that Neil explains that. Instead, the song is introduced by an Ali Baba character in a pantomime costume, banging a gong.

In the end, it’s a thrill – a mix of the obscure and the familiar, and a lesson in the way the meaning of songs is changed by time and context. Oddly enough, it feels like the beginning of something, not the end.
ALASTAIR McKAY

Set 1

From Hank To Hendrix

Ambulance Blues

Kansas

Sad Movies

Mexico

A Man Needs A Maid

Harvest

Love In Mind

Journey Through The Past

Homegrown

Love Art Blues

Love Is A Rose

Out On The Weekend

Old Man

Set 2

The Loner

Dirty Old Man

Spirit Road

Powderfinger

Hey Hey My My

Too Far Gone

Oh Lonesome Me

Winterlong

No Hidden Path

Encores:

Fuckin’ Up

Tonight’s The Night

The Sultan


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