Neil Young – Hard Rock Calling, London Hyde Park, Saturday June 27, 2009

The biggest surprise of the day isn’t the weather, which is what you might call glorious, apart from a late afternoon cloudburst that at least gives me the excuse I’ve been looking for to hide under a table, perhaps the only sensible response to an appropriately thundery set by Ben Harper and the aptly-named Relentless7.

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The biggest surprise of the day isn’t the weather, which is what you might call glorious, apart from a late afternoon cloudburst that at least gives me the excuse I’ve been looking for to hide under a table, perhaps the only sensible response to an appropriately thundery set by Ben Harper and the aptly-named Relentless7.

No, what the day has unpredictably in store for us – the gosh-wow-did-that-really-fucking-happen-moment – lurks ahead, preening itself in anticipation of the many jaws it will cause in due course to drop.

For the moment, though, let’s enjoy The Pretenders, who are on stage now, the streaming down on them and a crowd stunned by the heat, but quickly enlivened by a bracing romp through a couple of songs from the new Break Up The Concrete Album, a fierce “Boots Of Chinese Plastic” sounding as good as any of the acknowledged ‘classics’ from their back catalogue that quickly follow.

By “Message Of Love”, three numbers in, Chrissie Hynde’s eyeliner is melting, pouring down one side of her face, which makes her look in close-up a bit like Alice Cooper on the inner sleeve of Love It To Death. She’s in great voice, though, and “Message Of Love” is the first of the crowd-pleasing hits that pepper their set, everyone one of them sounding timelessly brilliant.

“Talk Of the Town” is quickly followed by another new song, “Love Is A Mystery”, Eric Haywood’s pedal steel, an unexpected voice in the instrumental mix, taking the lead here. The venerable “Back On The Chain Gang” gets a predictably big cheer, the crowd really getting into this now, the momentum continuing through the hard R&B blast of “Rosalee”, also from the recent album, guitarist James Walbourne taking a solo that’s so good Chrissie makes him play it again, which he does with even greater aplomb. A sultry “Brass In Pocket”, “I’ll Stand By You” and “Middle Of The Road” take things out on a knock-‘em dead high that makes me look forward to seeing them again soon at Latitude.

Seasick Steve has become an inescapable festival favourite for reasons that genuinely elude me, but he proves here as he did at last year’s Latitude and elsewhere to be incredibly popular across a broad generational bandwidth, although it should be said that everyone here is of such a sunnily uncritical disposition they’d likely applaud a barking dog or a tap-dancing seal.

I’m beginning to feel like a heretical grump in the company of so many people clearly cheered by the old bluesman and his grating down-home homilies, sub-Beefheartian boogie and practised humility, but then he plays something about a chicken and I am suddenly noticeable by my absence from the enthusiastic throng at the front of the stage.

The storm that not much later sweeps Hyde Park has somewhat abated and the skies are slowly clearing when Fleet Foxes perfectly catch the brightening mood with “Sun Giant”, their opening song neatly coinciding with a parting of the previously ominous clouds and the tentative reappearance of the big yeller itself, one of those moments of synchronicity familiar to festival veterans, after which, as if the band themselves have been somehow miraculously responsible for the improving weather they can’t do much wrong.

What follows is a largely ecstatic 50 minutes or so of thrilling harmonies, glorious melodies, and wonderful song. “White Winter Hymnal” and “”Ragged Wood” are predictably rhapsodic, but even better from where I’m standing are “Your Protector” and “Oliver James”, two of the less celebrated tracks from their much-feted debut, and a magnificent, soaring “Mykonos”.

I’m on my way at a casual dawdle from the backstage area to the front of the stage when for a moment I’m convinced by a slow ominous rumbling that what I can hear is more of the thunder that had accompanied the earlier downpour, this time with the splintery crackle of not-too-distant lightning, something elemental anyway afoot that I can’t immediately put a name to that of course turns out to be Neil Young, plugging in and without attendant ado launching into a shuddering Neanderthal riff that mutates almost reluctantly into the belligerent intro to “Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)”, a song to which an added layer of poignant significance has been added by the inescapable events of the last few days, another pop king ending up on the autopsy table.

What follows is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen Neil Young play, a full-on sonic rupture, two hours of unforgiving and unforgettable guitar distortion, seismic upheaval, deafening detonations, feedback rapture, wave after wave after crashing wave of noise, uplifting and triumphant, the kind of thing that tears vents in the atmosphere, disarranging the senses, wholly transcendent, an often savage aural maelstrom out of which emerges finally a charred beauty, that old ragged glory that is oft-mentioned in talk of Neil, his music and the way he plays it.

We have in astonishing succession: “Mansion on The Hill”, a barn-burning honky-tonk rave-up on “Are You Ready For The Country?”, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, a fearsome “Spirit Road”, an astonishing version of “Words”, a crunching “Cinnamon Girl” and a thoroughly monstrous “Fuckin’ Up”.

“Mother Earth” leads into what by now is a welcome acoustic set that includes a grave “The Needle And The Damage Done”, a winsome “Comes A Time”, “Unknown Legend”, a perhaps inevitable but entirely welcome “Heart Of Gold” and a version of “Old Man” that somewhat incongruously starts a mass singalong.

Things turn sulphuric again in a hurry with a long and brooding “Down By The River” that seems destined never to end, but eventually does, and following the terse garage-boogie of “Get Behind The Wheel” from the recent Fork In The Road, a version of “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World” that I am sure in some alternative universe or spooky other dimension continues even now to rage unstoppably.

Tonight it reaches climax after teasing climax, ecstatic and deranged and after a while just exhilaratingly hilarious, Neil grinning madly as he comes back for one more chorus, and then another and another after that, no one by now wanting the thing to be put to bed, the delirium palpable.

And he’s not done yet and tops even this with what’s become a formidable version of “A Day In The Life”, a song long-regarded by many as something no one in their right mind would think of playing live, including you might think Paul McCartney, who’s been standing at the side of the stage, but is within minutes at the microphone with Neil, arm around Neil’s shoulder, clearly euphoric, the crowd a-roaring. McCartney, now that things have moved on to a guitar-shredding instrumental section seems at a bit of a loss, not sure quite what to do, a problem he solves by waving his arms in the air, grinning wildly, dancing like someone who’s just been introduced to his feet and having a grand old time and then clawing at the strings of Neil’s guitar.

It’s an amazing moment, and an amazing end to an amazing show.


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