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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
NEIL YOUNG Hammersmith Apollo, London, March 14th 2008
Neil Young
Neil Young has something of a reputation for being a truculent performer – but he’s certainly not reluctant. Tonight was supposed to have been the first of a two-night stint at the Hammersmith Apollo, but such was the demand for tickets that four more nights were squeezed in here (all sold out I believe) between trips to Edinburgh and Manchester. Such is the appeal of a timeless elder statesman of rock, who has of course only recently survived a brief encounter with mortality. But despite his rather (possibly contrived) shambolic demeanour he doesn’t look (or sound) the worse for it. And by his own standards he’s very engaged with the audience, enjoying a sort of grumpy badinage throughout the two halves (acoustic first, electric second) of a three -hour-plus set. Maybe that’s because long time collaborator Tim Pope is here making a film. Or maybe that’s just how he likes it.
Neil Young
The stage is decked out like a film studio, and at the back roadie and sometime artist Eric Johnson is working on a series of canvases (apparently it’s ‘conceptual’). There are film crew everywhere, and I’m glad not to be seated too close to the front of the stage where their presence is clearly unavoidably intrusive. But Mr Young is protected from them, and the audience, by a comforting circle of instruments, seven guitars and a banjo. There are at least three Martins and a couple of big twelve strings. As he moves in and out of the circle to the pianos on either side of the stage he does that thing which all people do if you have guitars in the house, which is just run your thumb along the strings close to the top of the fret board. It’s a gesture of affection as much as anything else, because guitars are more than just guitars, they’re friends. “You’re not listening” says Young to a song-calling crowd as he strokes the twelve strings, each in a different open tuning. “You’re not listening. These guitars are getting on real fine” He picks up one of the Martins, “Now this one really turned on me last night…” and plays (as I recall) ‘Love art blues’ before returning the guitar to its stand with a caress of real affection. He’s just as fond of his pianos, slowly stroking the side of the ‘psychedelic’ baby grand before playing a haunting version of ‘A man needs a maid’.
It’s a wonderful hour and a half: starting with ‘From Hank to Hendrix’ and finishing with ‘Old man’, he delivers in between a thoughtful selection of his moving (‘Don’t let it bring you down’) and sometimes funny (‘Old King’) songs. His harmonica playing is exceptional and his voice achingly vulnerable – if the passage of time has done anything to his singing it’s made it a better vehicle for his songs than it was. The audience are loving it – this is what the majority of them have come for – and even the song-shouters give up their griping towards the end. Indeed I note that a number of the crowd leave after this first set – no doubt because they know only too well what to expect in the second. I can see that those who don’t, who have somehow managed to keep the Neil Young of Crazy Horse out of their minds, are frankly shocked as the second half begins, with Johnson introducing each song – music hall style, with a canvas on the right hand side of the stage, and Young launching into some mayhem guitar on his old black Gibson Les Paul.
Les Paul
Les Paul Classic
It’s not quite Crazy Horse, but with Ralph Molina on drums, Rick Rosas on bass, and Ben Keith on guitars it’s close enough (Young’s wife Pegi, who opened the show, joins occasionally on vocals and glockenspiel, as does Anthony Crawford on vocals and keyboards). Molina is awesome, but I imagine that having played with Young for so long he’s always able to second guess where he’s going, particularly during the frequent and prolonged denouements to each song. Young’s guitar playing, I wrote in my little black notebook, ‘combines gravitas with a barely concealed adolescent fury’ particularly during his lengthy solo on ‘No hidden path’, much of which is spent facing up to a huge yellow light on the right of the stage.
It’s a wonderfully hit and miss style, fuzzy and feedback fuelled, it’s raw, raucous and thoroughly self-indulgent, just the sort of stuff we’d all like to play in our living rooms if our neighbours would let us. And although it is loud, it’s nothing like the volume of his set with Crazy Horse at the Fleadh seven years ago, when I swear I thought it was impossible for so few people to make so much noise. But everything gets the noise treatment, even if there are some delicate moments – ‘Too far gone’, ‘Powderfinger’, it’s noise all the way through to encores ‘Cinnamon girl’ and ‘Tonight’s the night’.
Did I mention the ovation that Young got when he took the stage at the start of the show? It was huge – almost overwhelming I would have thought. It was even bigger when he left about three and a half hours later after an almost flawless performance (bearing in mind, of course, that flaws define Young’s approach to both recording and performance).

He’s playing in continental Europe later in the summer, and will be back for some festivals in the UK – so should you have a chance I would urge you to go and see him. Forget what the cynics say about ageing rock stars – here’s a man at the top of his game. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

Kate's gig photo album Kate's photographs

Music: Neil Young's MySpace page

Neil Young

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