If anyone’s looking for a house band to perform at the end of the world, they should get in early and book Neil Young & Crazy Horse. God knows how old Young will be by then, but he couldn’t look any older than he does now (aged 67) and it couldn’t matter less.
There were times during Young’s Wellington concert last night when I thought the world was ending – most notably during Like a Hurricane, when the wall of sound (make that, wall of noise) emanating from Young and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitars, Billy Talbot on bass and Ralph Molina on drums rumbled through the TSB Bank Arena and the sold-out audience within it, as visceral a bodily experience as it was an acoustic one. They might look like they should be in the Doobie Brothers, but Sampedro and Talbot could give any black metal band you care to mention a run for their money.
Not for the first time – nor the last – during the night I was left with a stupid grin across my face as I marvelled at the excess, the eccentricity, the grandeur of the performance before me. And not just the sonic performance, either. Did I mention Sampedro was wrestling with a keyboard hung by wires from the roof and draped in a tie-dyed cloth featuring the image of a bird with a tear trickling down from one eye?
When one thinks of visual theatrics in music, the Pet Shop Boys, Madonna and Lady Gaga are names that spring to mind, but not Neil Young. Yet, as the concert began – with the Beatles’ A Day in the Life playing over the sound-system – mad-haired, bespectacled scientists in white lab coats were to be seen pottering about the stage, before being joined by stagehands in fluorescent orange safety jackets and blue helmets (very Village People), against a backdrop of giant tour boxes being raised to reveal similarly proportioned Fender amps beneath, soon to be accompanied by a massive microphone (vintage, of course). Meanwhile, the two screens strung aloft and flanking either side of the stage were decked out to look like 1950s TVs.
Still, there are limits to Young’s theatricality, and so when he and the rest of Crazy Horse slipped quietly onto the stage to join the boffins et al in a rendition of God Defend New Zealand, he was wearing, as is his wont, a plaid woodman’s shirt, T-shirt and blue denim jeans. No meat dress for him.
The retro feel of the staging signalled an air of nostalgia in keeping with last year’s Americana album, although it was the same year’s Psychedelic Pill that Young drew on for new material.
The other focus of the concert was established from the start: Young, Sampedro and Talbot grouped around in a circle jerk of guitars, embarking on one of the night’s many extended jams before the first song (Love and Only Love off 1990’s Ragged Glory) had even begun, with Young stomping about in that ungainly way of his, like an animatronic T-Rex with rundown batteries. A rock dinosaur indeed.
Love and only love will endure – as will any one of this trio’s improvised riff-athons. Jazz rock is a term that has been sullied over the years but this was as true to what Miles Davis set out to create as anything. Although more metal than rock. Jazz metal. Free metal.
The most enthusiastic audience response of the night came when Young donned acoustic guitar and harmonica for Heart of Gold, but he was just messing with the crowd; throwing them a crumb; a cat with a mouse: this wasn’t a night for fans of Harvest and its like; indeed, when Young was later considering encore options one of the boffins brought out an enlarged cover of that album only to be dismissed out of hand in favour of F*!#in’ Up off Ragged Glory.
Whatever the opposite of MTV’s Unplugged is, this was it. Actually, we know what the opposite of MTV’s Unplugged is – it’s Young’s 1991 live album Weld and especially its extra disc Arc. This was a night for fans of that album.
There were a couple more quiet ones: an acoustic Twisted Road (off Psychedelic Pill) and the unreleased Singer without a Song with Young at the piano and a blonde woman wandering across the stage carrying a guitar case by way of illustration of the lyric. Sound silly? It was.
There were other missteps, too. The also-unreleased environmental anthem Hole in the Sky with its high harmonies sounded like a Flight of the Conchords spoof, while the concert would have ended better with the double whammy of the punked-up Sedan Delivery and blisteringly brutal Hey Hey, My My – Into the Black (both off Rust Never Sleeps, with a mock-maddened Young bellowing God knows what at the audience off-mic while giving them the evil eye), rather than the lame rock sentimentality of Opera Star (off Re-ac-tor) and the excessively elongated blues playing and falsetto singing of F*!#in’ Up, which was less a crescendo for the night than a petering out and deserved the charge of self-indulgence some were levelling at the rest of the concert.
A just charge for the rest of the concert? No way. Powderfinger (again off Rust Never Sleeps – the defining album for Young in this mode), Cinnamon Girl (off Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, but here grungily electrified) – these were great renditions of great songs.
The new songs stood up, too, particularly Psychedelic Pill’s Ramada Inn (a tale of bruised but enduring love across the years) and the same album’s powerfully ecologically minded Walk Like a Giant (unfortunately paired with the Conchords-esque Hole in the Sky).
Also standing up – surprisingly, perhaps, given the toll time has taken on him elsewhere and the volume of noise it had to contend with – was Young’s voice, which is in better condition than the voices of so many of his contemporaries. Crazy Horse, not Crazy Hoarse.
Heart of Gold, of course, exemplified this best, but you’d need a heart of stone, and ears of cloth, not to have appreciated what the rest of this concert had to offer. Mind you, by the end of it you may well have had no hearing left at all.
NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE, TSB Bank Arena, Wellington, March 19; Vector Arena, Auckland, March 21.