As the grinding noise enters its fifth minute an old couple gingerly descend the stairs on their way out of the venue, hearing aids shot to pieces and the last blobs of Poligrip shaken free from their dentures. It’s just the fourth number of tonight’s gig and Neil Young and Crazy Horse seem determined to weed out/annihilate anyone who was expecting a gentle evening of folk tinged loveliness...
Before the sonic carnage, Los Lobos, a band forever associated with that big hit, La Bamba, treated the early arrivers (mainly those who’d given up on the queues for the bar or toilets) to a fine set of country rock and blues. Man mountain (seriously, this dude looks huge) and lead singer David Hildago led an extended rattle through the bluesy Chains of Love and drawled his way through Lobos classic Will The Wolf Survive. It was probably the shout out and dedication of one of the band’s Spanish language numbers to Black Sabbath that got the biggest cheer of the set though. The sheer number of people traipsing in and out of the venue during support bands’ sets in arenas like this does little to help create an atmosphere and frankly a band celebrating its 40th anniversary deserved better than this. An ear opening experience for anyone who’d had them pigeonholed as just one thing.
Looking round at some of the faces in the audience this evening Neil Young is clearly nothing short of a god. They’ve grown up with him, grown old with him and bought the t-shirts. As both he and they approach their own personal ‘harvest’ these songs are perhaps now taking on new meanings. That’s not to say that Young’s ready to burn out or fade away just yet. On the contrary, clearly there’s still plenty of fire in his belly (or environmentally friendly fuel in his tank if you prefer) judging by tonight’s crowd dividing set. On the one side you’ve got those who appreciate the, let’s say, more experimental side of Young’s oeuvre, on the other you’ve got those who quite like Harvest and After The Gold Rush. Never the twain shall meet.
The signs were all there from the start. Men in white coats bustled around the stage, overacting terribly and gesticulating wildly at a set of giant flight cases which were eventually raised up into the roof to reveal giant oversized amps. An enormous mic was hoisted on stage too. Read the signs people. This was going to get LOUD. Young and the Horse came on stage, standing with their hands on their hearts as the national anthem plays and a giant union jack flag’s unfurled at the back of the stage. It’s an odd way to start a gig to say the least but things would get a lot weirder for a sizable portion of the crowd.
Ragged Glory’s Love To Burn kicked things off pleasantly enough, with Surfer Joe and Moe The Sleaze’s garage rock upping the tempo and Psychedelic Pill’s psymple rock riffs giving the head nodders and toe tappers something to get stuck into. Then came Walk Like A Giant. Like three granite rock statues Young, Talbot and Sampedro gathered in a circle to grrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnnddddddd out minute after minute of noise, driving a small number of the audience out...never to return. Anyone with a reasonable knowledge of Young’s work with Crazy Horse wouldn’t have been surprised by this sonic assault (who can forget the 35 minute album of feedback they released back in the early 90s) but I’m guessing a few people weren’t aware that these dudes can get loud and, hell, let’s say it, wilfully obtuse. After the barmy comes the balm though and as the flag at the back of the stage changed to the Woodstock logo the crowd’s stretched patience was rewarded with the appearance of folk Neil courtesy of Hole In The Sky and Blowin’ In The Wind, sandwiching arguably his greatest moment...Heart of Gold. Now he is indeed “growing old” (unlike when he wrote the song in his twenties) the song’s quiet desperation and fragility is even more moving and tonight’s rendition, just Neil and his harmonica (thankfully we were spared a grunge version), was one of those magical musical moments that any gig goer lives for. Withdrawing to a piano that looked every bit as beaten up as its player the unreleased track Singer Without a Song was perhaps tonight’s best platform for Shakey’s equally tremulous vocal which somehow simultaneously sounds like the voice of someone who’s 16 and 65. It’s almost as moving as Heart Of Gold, although the addition of a young lady wandering across the stage carrying a guitar case did little to enhance the song’s glorious 3am bar at the end of the road mood. Speaking of the demon drink (by the way surely Satan had a hand in the £4 a bottle prices in here tonight...scandalous) new album Psychedelic Pill’s Ramada Inn’s tale of love on the rocks (literally) is rapidly becoming a fan favourite. Deservedly so. Although it clocks in at 15 minutes or so this is one case where length and song gel, the agonising guitar and Young’s pleading “He loves her so” providing a musical kick in the guts that’s all too rare these days. Impressive guitar solos for a dude in his late 60s with an ominously bandaged wrist too.
The treats weren’t over yet though and Cinnamon Girl’s killer riffs (surely a big influence of some of REM’s stuff) and hippy-ish chorus pleased the hairier members of the audience. Clearly Young’s short of material though (joke) given the tiresome extended version of Fuckin’ Up. Getting the crowd to shout “You’re just a fuck up” over and over again (yawn) is the kind of juvenile nonsense you’d expect from N-Dubz. Stop it. Cortez the Killer received an appreciative whoop from the hardcore fans before an impressively meaty Rolling Stones-ish take on Buffolo Springfield’s Mr Soul. Satisfaction pretty much guaranteed. The grunge lovers anthem and Cobain suicide note inspiring Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black) capped off the show with another extended freak out, perhaps justifying some audience members’ grumbles about “too much filler and not enough killer”. But I guess that’s just Neil Young and Crazy Horse being Neil Young and Crazy Horse. You want 3 minute pop songs go see Little Mix (ask your grandchildren). Encore Powderfinger sent both the folkies and the rockers on their way happy, capping off a nearly three hour set that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous (and all points in between). Young and Crazy Horse certainly don’t play it safe but 45 years into their partnership surely that’s something to be admired? Keep on shocking in the free world dudes...
PS: The vid at the top of this piece is obviously from a previous show but it gives you a decent idea of how things went down last night.