I have to admit to a certain amount of anxiety tonight. It’s not just the weather, which is, of course, rotten, the wind howling like it’s fit to tear chunks from rooftops from miles around.

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Neil Young – Manchester Apollo, March 11 2008

I have to admit to a certain amount of anxiety tonight. It’s not just the weather, which is, of course, rotten, the wind howling like it’s fit to tear chunks from rooftops from miles around.

Nor is it the small matter of my beloved Liverpool’s tricky Champions League fixture at Inter Milan, made all the more potentially hazardous by Rafa’s selection of Martin Skrtel at centre-back. The last time I saw him, he was hopelessly fluffing his way through an FA Cup tie against Havant & Waterlooville, playing for all the world like someone who’d popped into Anfield to deliver half-time oranges, only to be mistaken for a ‘real’ footballer, handed a shirt and told “Here, put this on and get out there”.

Perhaps it’s more to do with the fact that, last time Neil Young played the Apollo here, it was 2003’s Greendale tour. Allan has already filled you in on the brain-sapping details of punters being forced to endure an entire album of utterly forgettable songs in grim procession, in the vain hope he might play something good later. So I’ll leave it there. But these things live in the memory.

So far, reports of these latest shows have been excellent, seeming to indicate a Neil Young revitalised, refocused and eager to rock out with abandon. As it turns out, I don’t have much to grumble about after all, omens or not. He saunters on for the acoustic set first, baggy-suited and surrounded by a phalanx of guitars. Someone has hoisted up a huge ‘N’ stage left, just in case we’re not sure. Bathed in a curious kind of fireside glow, he settles into “From Hank To Hendrix”, before the captivating “Ambulance Blues”.

As you probably know by now, it’s become the surprise staple of this tour, and it really is wonderful. A great, urgent, labyrinthine thing, it feels like Young is crawling somewhere within it, unsure of where he’s going to take it at any given moment. In an odd way too, it seems to set a certain mood for this acoustic half. He hardly utters a word to the crowd, seems a little tetchy.

He plays “Sad Movies”, another rarity finally dusted down for this tour, then stands up and does that slow bumbling about that I’ve been reading about, like an ageing college lecturer who’s forgotten where his glasses are. Mild performance art maybe, but it does all seem pretty unnecessary and painfully self-conscious. “A Man Needs A Maid”, at piano and synth, is just beautiful, little shivers of notes shooting into the air. Then comes tonight’s first surprise: “Stringman”, originally written in 1976, but unreleased until Unplugged in the early ‘90s. A lovely, almost meditative rendition at piano, it’s followed by “Try”, a sunny piano rag from the “Homegrown” sessions that’s also been stretching its limbs on these dates.

In between “Harvest” and “Love In Mind”, Neil dispenses with a stray heckler, but it’s all starting to feel a little grumpy. Digging out the banjo, he ignores the calls for “Old King” and almost attacks “Mellow In Mind”, plucking hard at the strings, suddenly animated, keening for the high notes. It’s a sinewy, unexpectedly powerful version that gives you a jolt. The timeworn classics are brought out to finish, with “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” getting the biggest roar of the night so far.

Interval over (during which time I’ve squeezed past a bunch of people from Emmerdale, spotted the bald dome of TV chef Simon Rimmer and overheard Mani talking to someone about working with Bjorn from Peter, Bjorn & John) and it’s a wholly different Neil. With Rick Rosas on bass, Ben Keith on rhythm guitar and Ralph Molina on drums, he tears into “Mr Soul” like it’s an itch he’s been desperate to address all evening.

Springing up and down, bouncing from foot to foot, screwing his face up into the mic, he’s now clearly having fun. Silhouetted against the glaring crimson lights of the now-familiar “junk-shop-memory” stage set, “Dirty Old Man” looks, and sounds, brilliantly hellish, full of the impish glee of old men who know they should really be doing something more sedentary on a weekday night.

Much has been made of “No Hidden Path” this tour, and rightly so. It’s an immense, spectacular thing. But for pure rock’n’roll dementia, head-buckling riffs and roaring solos, “Spirit Road” is its equal tonight. Huddling up to Keith and Rosas, riding the exchange like a tempestuous bull, Young is cutting loose. “Down By The River” is colossal too, Young turning his back, hunkering down and rocking so wildly you fear he’s going to topple into Molina’s lap. It’s a huge ball of knotted noise. At one point during a similarly frenzied “Hey Hey My My”, it sounds like it could easily smash the place to pieces.

Brief respite arrives with Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me”, prefaced with Young’s introduction: “When I was 20, I wrote another melody for this. It wasn’t a good idea, I should have left it alone.” Needless to say, the song, with Keith on organ, Anthony Crawford at the piano and Young wheezing into harmonica, sounds just gorgeous. Then comes “Winterlong”, first aired on 1977 retrospective “Decade”, and dedicated to his late friend Danny Whitten.

It stands alone in this electric set as a rolling, graceful country song, albeit with a kick. “Powderfinger” is extraordinary too. After “No Hidden Path” and much audience wailing, the band return for “Roll Another Number”, which, after all that, sounds like a gentle rubdown.

Is this Young, on the other side of 60, giving us all his last hurrah? Reminding us, on the back of “Living With War” and “Chrome Dreams II”, that “Are You Passionate?” and “Greendale” didn’t signal the beginning of a long slow fade into mediocrity? Or is Neil just doing what the hell Neil wants and having fun in the process? My guess is the latter. Oh, and by the way, Skrtel did alright tonight. We won 1-0.

ROB HUGHES

ACOUSTIC SET

From Hank To Hendrix

Ambulance Blues

Sad Movies

A Man Needs A Maid

Stringman

Try

Harvest

Love In Mind

Mellow My Mind

Love Art Blues

Don’t Let It Bring You Down

Helpless

The Needle And The Damage Done

Heart Of Gold

ELECTRIC SET

Mr Soul

Dirty Old Man

Spirit Road

Down By The River

Hey Hey, My My

Too Far Gone

Oh, Lonesome Me

Winterlong

Powderfinger

No Hidden Path

Roll Another Number (For The Road)

ROB HUGHES