Neil Young & Crazy Horse

Neil Young & Crazy Horse :: Los Lobos :: The O2, London, 17-6-13

How does he do it? How does he win, lose and win his audience, several times, during the course of a show? How can he be brilliant and bonkers, distant and self-indulgent but then self-deprecating and charming, sometimes all within the same song? I can’t start with such weighty questions so let’s begin with the support act, the wonderful Los Lobos. They know that all but the Uncut/MOJO readers in the audience know them for their one-hit wonder, La Bamba. They are hewn from tough Mexican-American East Los Angeles neighbourhoods but that cultural pastiche really does bear little resemblance to the rest of their output, which sometimes has a Latino tinge but more obviously just blows the roof off any venue they’re in by sheer rock and roll propulsion. This is a band carved in stone, made for decades of touring. You really have to play gigs in the four figures to stay as tight as this. And it's their biggest ever break in the UK, opening for Neil (though their lynchpin guitarist Cesar Rosas was mysteriously absent). They grab it with both hands and win the half-full venue over. Their final song had everyone grinning – off it goes, and within 10 seconds you realise it’s Like A Rolling Stone. How surprising! Then, when ‘Once upon a time, you dressed so fine…’ should come in, leader David Hidalgo (who has played accordion, which he broke out here to great effect on one song, and guitar on three Dylan albums) starts to sing… ‘Para bailar la bamba se necesita una poca de gracia…’ and everyone realises there’s an unlikely mash-up happening. It’s audacious and fantastic. They don’t usually play La Bamba, but this is clever stuff. Tremendous band, and actually, it shows the lack of ego of Crazy Horse to allow an arguably better band than them, with such swing and style, to open.

So, to Neil Young, and his inexplicably odd approach to an arena show. At the start of his classic concert movie, 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, there’s a weird play going on, where men in Ewok-style hooded cloaks are constructing the stage and arguing with each other. This time, it was mad scientists, in white coats and big white wigs, all taking place to the soundtrack of A Day In The Life. The same props from that tour were also present – 20-foot microphone, outsized speaker stacks and flight cases and so on. And then suddenly, the entire band were stood on stage, in a row, hands on heart, as a Union Flag unfurled and God Save The Queen (he covered it on his album Americana) played. No fanfare, no big intro, he was just there, all in black, saluting the national anthem. Alright then. On went the fedora, followed by the battered Gibson, and we were off. It’s a beautiful guitar sound he makes, crunchy and precise yet distorted and savage, and the collective muscle memory of this band – Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro (who replaced original guitarist Danny Whitten) – forms a cocoon around him. They’ve played together, on and off, since 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. The first few songs went relatively normally, and then came Walk Like A Giant from his new record Psychedelic Pill.

It’s hard to say what audiences expect when they pay big bucks to see one of the so-called ‘heritage’ acts. But I’m fairly certain it wasn’t a 20-minute dirge, half of which was atonal feedback while pieces of paper blew across the stage. You could feel the collective disappointment that such a big portion of this show was being wasted by self-indulgence (or, if you want to pretend it’s interesting, and not pretentious, you can call it ‘a startling act of agitprop provocation’). However, in a sense, it’s entirely the crowd’s fault if they were disappointed. They should know better. I want you to imagine Mick Jagger as a quite adorable small dog. He jumps up repeatedly at the kitchen table, trying to get your attention, because he wants treats. So you make him perform for you a bit and reward him with love. He’s so keen, and he wants you to love him so desperately. Now think of Neil Young, and imagine a cat that just doesn’t give a fuck. He views you with disdain, accepts your food if you’re lucky, makes you work for affection, and buggers off out of the house if he’s bored with you.

This is the difference between someone who works hard to make you love him and someone who does exactly whatever the hell he wants and if you don’t like it that’s just tough. In a way, I just adore and hugely admire this approach. He plays his own game, and he doesn’t think about the audience at all for large parts of the show. Later on, he says ‘At times tonight, frankly, we sucked; but with what we do, that’s always a possibility’. He’s out there on a limb, and if the audience have come to hear Rockin’ In The Free World (which to be fair he does play sometimes) and half of Harvest, they’re in big trouble. He doesn’t care if there’s 200 or 20,000 people watching. He does what he does, and makes little concession, unlike pretty much all of his contemporaries. It's true that, in the current musical landscape, where getting people to shell out money is getting harder every day, live performance seems to have become more important than ever. So, what are we expecting when we pay for a gig, when the stakes are so high for the performer (though arguably, Neil is plenty rich and doesn’t actually need to do this to earn a living)? The wonderful Low recently played a gig that consisted of one song lasting 27 minutes and I’ll see Patti Smith, who’s had only had one hit record, this week. However, in the latter case, it’s a small venue, so there’s an unspoken agreement that you’re paying for proximity and the artist can do what they like. A normal musician, in the O2, would recognise that there’s 20,000 people present and tailor their setlist accordingly. But not Neil Young, not until a crowd-pleasing encore. In a way it’s maddening, but in another you just have to admire what he does, when faced with demands from a big audience. Almost every single song dribbles to an extended end, finishing with feedback and false endings. It’s almost funny, as you get kinda sorta tricked into applauding because you think it’s the end, only for the song to come back and drone on for another minute. And this from a man who has about 50 extraordinary songs to play you – instead, you sit there listening to walls of feedback for minutes on end. It’s crackers, let’s face it.

It’s not like he’s up there making no effort, he’s completely lost in the moment with his band, huddled together in the centre of the stage. He wrings every note out with utter conviction and passion. But it has its trying moments. I personally don’t get hung up in setlists, and I know enough about Neil to have expected some of the madness that met me, but even I had my patience tested. It’s a high-wire act; sometimes it works, now and then it doesn’t, but you have to appreciate the stubborn approach. After the interminable Walk Like A Giant wall of noise ended, he embarked on a trio of acoustic songs – which were utterly beautiful, and you’re even more baffled, being swung this way and that. First up, Red Sun from 2000’s Silver & Gold, then the gorgeous Comes A Time and then… Blowin’ In The Wind. It sounded beautiful, moving, and better than Bob could ever do it now. A piano-led new song followed (accompanied by another piece of theatrical eccentricity: a young woman, guitar case in hand, wandering about the stage before disappearing) and then it was back to the main show, though I could have stood for a longer acoustic section, such was its beauty. His voice, incredibly, seems untouched by decades of touring and held out its lovely high tone throughout. Then, the energy level rose, with Cinnamon Girl, but dropped on a 15-minute version of Fuckin’ Up – which was mildly funny, getting the crowd to repeat one profane line over and over, but wore thin, again (though it was amusing to see the insipid corporate hell of the O2 subjected to such a venture). My head was spinning, and then came a lovely surprise, a classic track, Mr Soul, by his old band Buffalo Springfield. A song that lasted less than 5 minutes too, how novel. He then fancied a little chat with the audience, which was just so heartfelt and charming, and started with the bit about the band sucking, and took in a whole heap of gratitude, that he understood people had to leave because it was getting late, then particularly thanked parents with little ones for coming and that he hoped they were in bed without a care in the world by now. This was followed by a massive, crunching, monstrous version of Hey Hey My My. This is a song that will be played in 100 years, a song that can never get old. The place roared its approval and then it was over, and people started making their way to the Tube. What a bizarre, brilliant and crazy show.

But then, he bounced back onto the stage, this man of 67, who was hours from death to a brain aneurysm only 8 years ago, and ripped into one of the best encores I’ve ever heard, as people danced in the aisles. First, Like a Hurricane. Second, from one of his best ever albums Tonight’s The Night, Roll Another Number For The Road, and then just one more, as we flew past the 11pm curfew: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, truly one of his best songs, to end the night. It was worth the fine he’ll have to pay (he told his management to get out their calculators). It was baffling and wonderful, maddening and affirming, unexpected and expected. He’s a crazy old bastard, but he does it all exactly how he wants it, with few allowances. How many others can say that? At his first gig in Newcastle, last week, he took on an interloper: "Sing like you mean it?" he rounds on a heckler. "What the fuck would you sing for if you don't mean it?". Exactly.

Love and Only Love
Psychedelic Pill
Walk Like a Giant
Hole in the Sky
Red Sun
Comes a Time
Blowin' in the Wind
Singer Without a Song
Ramada Inn
Cinnamon Girl
Fuckin' Up
Mr. Soul
Hey Hey, My My

Like a Hurricane
Roll Another Number (For the Road)
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere