The day finally arrived when we would see legendary Canadian musician Neil Young. I have been a lover of his work for years, indeed many of his songs form the sound track to my life. But this was my first time seeing him play live.
His huge range of influential material, crafted over more than 40 years, takes him from tender acoustic folk songs played simply with guitar and harmonica, or perhaps piano or even banjo, to balls-out, 10-minute hard rock epics. He makes all of this distinctly his own with a characteristic fragility in his ‘thin, reedy voice’ as Moth always calls it. That ‘thin, reedy voice’ is actually very strong when you hear him live.
Neil Young is such a giant in the history of modern music that he could easily have chosen to play in a soul-less barn-like stadium, like Wembley Arena, and sold it out, playing fewer dates to more people. But it is a measure of the man that instead he chose to play the much smaller Hammersmith Apollo for more nights to give his fans a better experience and a more intimate performance.
He opened with ‘From Hank to Hendrix’ and there he was with his old guitar doing what he does.
He began on stage on his own, coming on to rapturous applause. He was surrounded by a clutter of stuff; lighting rigs, pianos, monitors, guitars and other musical paraphernalia, easels with paintings on, and even an artist busily painting live throughout the show. He ambled slowly between the clutter, thinking quietly to himself ‘what shall I play next?’ before sitting down to play again.
Not for a moment did the clutter detract from the pure and profound magic of one man with a guitar playing a beautiful song. Neil was singing – opening his heart – just for me. For a whole hour he played on his own including ‘Old Man’, ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ and ‘Harvest’, though disappointingly not ‘Harvest Moon’. When he picked up the banjo I had hoped he’d do ‘Old King’a country-style song about a trucker’s dead dog with the lyric: “King went running after deer, wasnt scared of jumping off the truck in high gear” but he didnt. The acoustic first half ended with surely one of the most perfect songs ever written ‘Heart of Gold’.
After an interval, Neil returned to the stage with his band, strapped on an electric guitar and together they made some big, rock noise for the next hour and half.
I love this contrast; from quiet stories about lonely people on the highway, the moon, the wind and prairie spirits prettily picked out on an acoustic guitar to brutal, no-holds-barred head-bangers.
Highlights for me were ‘Hey hey my my’, ‘Down by the River’ and finally ending with the riffy anthem ‘No Hidden Paths’ from his new album, surely destined to become a classic.
With such a massive back catalogue of songs to choose from, we were inevitably going to be disappointed if he didn’t play our particular favourites. We didn’t get ‘Cortez the Killer’ for example, which he has played other nights on this tour. Ah well. You can’t have everything.
We had an evening with mighty Neil Young and that’s plenty good enough for me.
Photos: Moth Clark