Neil Young has around 40 albums to his name, plus half a dozen unreleased albums and a whole bunch of oddities and rarities. It’s nigh on 30 years since his first solo album. So it’s entirely possible for two people to both own a dozen Neil Young albums and have no point of common reference (although they’d probably both have ’Harvest’). There are a couple of best of’s, but by all accounts they are patchy and include a lot of odd choices.
So going to see him live was a daunting prospect. I wanted to be sure that we wouldn’t be sitting there going ’buh’ for two and a half hours. So I checked out the web for set lists and found Sugar Mountain, which helpfully lists every song he’s played live since August 1969. I was able to pick out the key albums and tracks to give a whirl as a primer. I would never normally do this for a band, but I felt it was justified this time!
The stage was set up looking like an artists’ studio or bohemian coffee lounge, with brightly coloured pianos, dozens of guitars, chairs for the musicians scattered about and in the corner a tiny pump organ. At the back of the stage, there were large painted canvases stacked up and during the course of Neil’s electric set, the artist would bring up different canvases to represent each song.
The support act was a band fronted by Neil’s wife, Peggi Young. An utterly forgivable bit of nepotism, she played through a number of pleasing but undistinctive country songs, including a Gram Parsons cover.
Neil took to the stage under cover of one of the artist’s canvases that had a big ’N’ on it, to the surprise and amusement of the audience. Moving to the centre of a big circle of acoustic guitars, he showed off his odd habit of clapping along with the audience. It seemed a fairly natural gesture, but for me it highlights the odd relationship he developed with the audience. In a way it’s slightly patronising to clap along, as though he’s urging them to hurry up so he can get to playing - but then again it could be humble, saying that he’s no greater a man than the people in the crowd. Or more likely, it just marks time while he’s waiting for quiet.
- Side note - the Apollo was massively overcrowded. A couple of people showed us there tickets marked ’Standing on the steps in the circle’. This guy was an ex-fire warden and was worried about the H&S implications, with good cause! The other main problem with the venue was the temperature, which went from ’too warm’ to ’bloody soporific’ towards the end of the electric set, a fact that meant we were both nodding off during the 15 minute grungefest of ’No Hidden Path’, one of the weaker songs from the recent Chrome Dreams II album.
Anyway, the acoustic set. It was an absolute joy to me to have a musician brave enough to just come out and play some songs on his own. If the songs are good enough, they’ll stand on their own. Just about every act I can think of has to be backed up by at least three guitars and a drumkit, even for more acoustic songs. Opening with From Hank to Hendrix is as good a way of saying ’hello!’ to an audience as any, with the opening From Hank to Hendrix, I walked these streets with you, Here I am with this old guitar, Doin’ what I do. The second song, Ambulance Blues, was one of the highlights of the set for me. It’s a soaring, lilting song with lyrics that start as traditional Western-riverboat-Indians fare, then descend into random eccentricity before delivering a paranoid sting in the final lines.
One of the things that impressed me about both sets was how close the songs sounded to the original recordings. Neil’s voice has aged, but not by much. For the electric set, it helps that most of his band members have been with him for 20-30 years. Still, the live sound production was superb, very well suited to softer acoustics of the Apollo.
Highlights of the acoustic set included ’Homegrown’, a banjo song that Neil himself said was pretty stupid. He got the audience to vote whether they wanted to hear about plant-life or dogs and although dogs (’Old King’) definitely won, he played plant-life (’Homegrown’) anyway, claiming that was how democracy worked! Harvest and Out On The Weekend were both superb and illicited singing along from some members of the audience. (By singing, I mean tuneless murmuring). ’A Man Needs A Maid’ was fabulous as ever, but the genius stroke was replacing the London Symphony Orchestra with the only synthesizer of the evening, a small keyboard sitting on top of Neil’s grand piano. The verses were sung with piano accompaniment, but the orchestra sections were replicated on the synth - superb! Saves paying two dozen extra musicians. The more unfamiliar songs were also decent and enjoyable. Damn, looking at the set list the only ones I knew were off ’Harvest’, ’Harvest Moon’ and ’Ambulance Blues’ from ’On The Beach’. The pleasure of acoustic solo performance easily covered the cracks though.
The audience was a little vocal and restless during some of the pauses between songs, but Neil took his time between each track. I thought his struming of the pre-tuned guitars in their stands, making a simple three-chord sequence was paticularly amusing. The applause was nothing less than rapturous throughout the evening though.
There was also a rambling story about his Grandma Jean working in the mines in Canada, organising the local sing-songs and seeing a lot of ’action’. All good stuff in my opinion. Part of the appeal of Neil Young is the escapism aspect. His songs are full of tales of far-away lands, distant American highways, rivers and deserts full of nature, love and automobiles. He’s a stranger from another world and his eccentricities amplify that.
The electric set was less succesful in my opinion, although still pretty damn good. I was surprised by the appearances of ’Hey Hey, My My’, ’Powderfinger’ and ’Fuckin’ up’, songs from his sometime backing band Crazy Horse which I thought were all off-limits. They were very welcome though, ’Powderfinger’ from the Rust Never Sleeps album in paticular. Rust Never Sleeps was a Young album I got in my first wave, way back in the mid-ninties, so it was very familiar. ’Fuckin’ Up’ suffered from it’s long ending and the inherent risk that if you make the ending of the song too big, the main song will just start up again and you’ll have to play the whole damn thing twice.
The songs from the new album, Chrome Dreams II stood up very well. ’Dirty Old Man’ is one of those songs that comes across so much better live when it’s a full on, high volume stomp. On the record it sounded too thin reedy, with the driving bass-line mixed too far down. ’Spirit Road’ is a classic Neil Young song though and there are many more from the album that would have been quite welcome.
Although not ’No Hidden Path’, which is the duller of the two long songs. ’Ordinary People’, with it’s saxaphone and false endings would have been a much better choice.
The weirdest moment of the evening came after ’Fuckin’ Up’, as a cardboard angel microphone stand was lowered from the lights onto one part of the stage, only to be raised, lowered and raised back up again. There seemed to be a disagreement, then a dozen roadies appeared, wheeling on a grand piano. This was followed by an impromptu sounding rendition of ’Tonight’s The Night’, where Neil seemed to forget most of the words and gave his band random and confusing directions, before telling them to play more and more quietly and stopping halfway through. What was all that about?
After the band bowed and said goodbye it was pushing well on for 11:30pm, far later than most acts would play. There was time for one more encore though, which was preceeded by the arrival of a pantomime-style Turk and a gong. The gong was duly bashed, introducing ’The Sultan’, Neil’s first ever single. ’The Sultan’ is an obscure and lost instrumental from 1963, but stands up well for highlighting Neil’s guitar playing.
Then the lights came on and everyone was bloody glad to get into the cool night air, even though it was raining. I am seriously glad I got to see Neil Young live. It was more than just a great show. Neil is a legendary performer and brings a wonderful mythic quality to his songs. A normal night for him perhaps, but a special night for most of the audience.
03-15-2008, Hammersmith Apollo, London, England
w/ Rick Rosas, Ben Keith, Ralph Molina, Anthony Crawford & Pegi Young
Acoustic: 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 //
Electric - with band: The Loner / Dirty Old Man / Spirit Road / Powderfinger / Hey Hey, My My / Too Far Gone / Oh, Lonesome Me / Winterlong / No Hidden Path // Fuckin’ Up / Tonight’s The Night // The Sultan