Thursday, March 6 2008
The last time I saw Neil Young at the Apollo was in 2003, when he was touring to promote his ecological country rock opera, Greendale, still unreleased at the time, which meant no one had heard any of the songs. The unfamiliarity of what he then played provoked among the audience a certain restlessness that quickly gave way to collective dismay when it dawned on them that he wasn’t going to play merely a selection of songs from the record, but the album in what turned out to be its indigestible entirety.
It conspicuously wasn’t what people had come to hear – not that this would have worried Neil too much. He’s always done things his own way, which is one of the reasons we continue to love him, his unpredictability and sheer wilfulness matched only, really, by Dylan, and something when all is said, and also done, to be congratulated.
It was hard not to feel sympathy, though, for some of the people there that night – he was, after all, only playing London on that visit, and many of them had come from hither and yon in the hope, no doubt, of seeing Neil play the stuff for which they liked him most, few of them warming to the often interminable descriptions of the songs that seemed increasingly to take up most of the show, the songs themselves often arriving as not especially distinguished after-thoughts to his windy monologues.
The two couples, for instance, in the row in front of me have come down from Liverpool, somebody’s birthday involved, money spent on train fares and a couple of hotel rooms, Neil’s concert the highlight of their trip, an evening of familiar favourites what they are expecting. They sit, therefore, in baffled disappointment as one after another the songs from Greendale are played, no sign of “After The Goldrush”, “Heart Of Gold”, “Like a Hurricane” or “Powderfinger”. They leave before the end, thus missing what in truth is a rather desultory short second set of crowd-pleasing classics.
Earlier, I’d been talking to the guy sitting next to me, who’d travelled down to London on a clapped out motorbike from far off Lanarkshire, a journey that with several breakdowns had taken him a ghastly 14 hours. He was exhausted, but excited at seeing Neil for the first time live after years of being a fan. Three or four numbers into the performance of Greendale, however, he’s asleep. I have to step over him on my own eventual way out, imagining him later, waking with the cleaners sweeping up around him, Neil long gone, as well as everyone else.
Five years on, and Neil is again at Hammersmith, and the place is crackling with lively anticipation, something so electric in the air it’s like those moments of meteorological turmoil that preface stormy weather, lightning on the horizon, the wind beginning to whip and buck, cloudbanks rising, a low distant rumble of thunder.
No one, you’d be right in thinking, is going to sleep through what follows.
The stage – as already vividly described by Damien Love in his www.uncut.co.uk review of the current tour’s opening night in Edinburgh – is an apparently chaotic assemblage, like something from a pop art installation by George Segal, or somebody like him, that could be the basement where Neil keeps the accumulated junk of his many years, through which he seems when he first appears to be looking for something, a key, perhaps, to the past, which turns out to be the songs that he is soon playing.
And so Neil, in a baggy white suit, which apart from the paint smears could be the one he wore on the sleeve of On The Beach, spends a little time wandering around the stage, touching things in a distracted reverie, as if he’s just walked into a room from his past that he has not in living memory visited, affecting now surprise at what’s here, what memories these things around him hold.
It’s not quite as hammy as I was expecting from John’s review yesterday, but not nearly as effective as the act I remember him putting on for the similarly acoustic opening half of his 1975 shows here with Crazy Horse, when for about 45 minutes he played more convincingly the part of a spectacularly spaced out hippie troubadour, swigging tequila, wholly stoned and apparently convinced for the moment that he was in Germany. Tonight, in his suit, his hair already a-fly, he’s like some absent-minded professor in a laboratory of his own design. He reminds me oddly of eccentric TV astronomer Patrick Moore, a model of unkempt bemusement.
And then the first gorgeous chords of “From Hank To Hendrix” introduce a mesmerising hour of music that mixes the familiar (“Harvest”, “After the Goldrush”, “Heart of Gold”, “Old Man”) and the truly arcane (“Kansas”, “Try”) and a couple of songs you thought you’d never hear him play – including, of course, “Ambulance Blues”, hitherto hardly-ever to my knowledge played live, but a staple of this tour, and a jaw-dropping version of “Out On The Weekend”. There’s also the by-now famously startling new take on “A Man Needs A Maid” and a robust “Old King”, written in affectionate memory of a dog he had, played on banjo.
This is all great, of course, but without meaning to moan or wanting to sound like one of those people who spend all night at shows like this shouting out requests for their favourite songs in strangely strangulated voices, I would maybe have liked a few more songs that matched the intense gravity of “Ambulance Blues” and would have given a lot if he’d thrown in, say, a version of “Last Trip To Tulsa”, “Thresher”, “Marlon Brando, Pocahontas And Me” or “Comin’ Apart At Every Nail”.
Anyway, after “Old Man”, there’s a short break and then Neil reappears dressed now in an even baggier black suit, paint-smeared in a manner that makes it look like he’s wearing a 21st century Nudie suit decorated by Jackson Pollock. Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina, ultra-cool bassist Rick Rosas and Ben Keith are with him now, and they rock the house with a two-fisted opening onslaught of “The Loner” and “Dirty Old Man”, the noise they are making akin to the slow roar of an avalanche, an irresistible density of mass, matter and mayhem.
“Spirit Road” follows, gloriously, and there’s a long, suitably malarial “Down By the River”, Young’s guitar feverish, followed by a rampant “Hey Hey, My My”, with a ferocious coda. And then there’s another huge surprise with the inclusion – again for the first time, I think, on this tour – of the great “Roll Another Number For The Road”, from Tonight’s The Night.
“Oh, Lonesome Me” is as utterly marvellous as previous reviews have claimed, with wonderful support from Keith and Anthony Crawford on piano and organ. John’s least favourite moment – “The Believer” – follows. It seems even slighter in the context of tonight than it does on Chrome Dreams II, but effectively sets up a fantastically imposing “Powerdfinger”, which has the weight of legend behind it.
And then there’s a show-stopping, simply colossal “No Hidden Path”, nigh on 20 minutes of it, Neil’s solos sounding like ruptures in the earth’s crust, fissures appearing everywhere, tectonic plates shifting and crashing beneath him. The stage now and the people on it are drenched in a burning golden light, that mixed with the red back-spots bathes the band in the burnished glow of an atomic sunrise or a nuclear sunset, I’m not sure which. As the song reaches towards an awesome climax, Neil stands facing the massive klieg light to the left of the stage, soloing into it, head thrown back, then lowered into it, as if he may at any moment be consumed by it, beamed up, the next stop presumably being the Phoenix Asteroid.
I have a feeling of being witness to some sun-cult ritual, a worship of light as the source of eternal renewal. It’s a spooky fucking couple of minutes, this bit of the show, and I am at a loss to even begin to explain how he wrings from his guitar the sound he makes in the song’s final, dying moments, which provokes much awestruck head shaking and how-the-fuck-does-he-do-that looks at anyone who catches my eye.
Great as it is, tonight’s sole encore, an initially smouldering then rowdily exclamatory “Fuckin’ Up”, seems at best noisily irrelevant, nothing he could, I think, do now that can successfully top the gargantuan wonder of “No Hidden Path” and the places it has taken him and us.
If anyone’s got any spare tickets for any of the other four nights Neil is playing, you can lay them off here. This was just incredible.
Let me know what you thought if you were at last night’s show.
From Hank To Hendrix
A Man Needs A Maid
After the Goldrush
Love Art Blues
Heart Of Gold
Out On The Weekend
Dirty Old Man
Down By The River
Hey Hey, My My
Roll Another Number
Oh, Lonesome Me
No Hidden Path