Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Neil Young: Brisbane and Sydney March 2013

Thursday, 14 March 2013

For a while, fool that I was (and, arguably, still am) I was thinking two Neil Young and Crazy Horse concerts would be enough.

Predictably, they're not, though any attempt to increase the NY/CH quotient would result in an automatic reduction in the Springsteen allocation over the next week or so. Sure, I could have headed on to Melbourne for another two shows during the week and weaken in my resolve to avoid winery shows on the weekend, but that'd rule out the two Bruce shows in Brisbane. Oh well...

Looking at these matters in the cold hard light of rational reality, you might think two Horse-driven shows are at least one more than necessary, and on a strictly rational application of logic you might have a point.

I landed in Brisbane pretty sure of what I was going to be getting.

Over the years, watching these matters from a distance, there's an invariable wow, he played that! factor on the first show or two of a tour, but after the second, or maybe the third assuming you're looking at something lengthier than a ten-show swing across Australia and New Zealand, things are more or less set in stone and there's not much room for variation.

In other settings, with other musicians, you might find a bit of variation in the set list, but when we're talking Neil and The Horse you might as well forget it. "They all sound the same," some Frenchman in the crowd called out in 1996, producing a Neil riposte suggesting that it's all one song.

Which it is. Neil dons the harmonica brace for Heart of Gold and Twisted Road, and heads over to sit behind the piano (the upright piano, which explains the girl carrying the guitar case) for Singer Without a Song but for the rest of the just under two and a quarter hours it's fairly obvious what you're going to get.

Anyone walking out of one of these shows and lamenting the absence of the hits either failed to notice the & Crazy Horse on the ticket, or hasn't realized the significance of the two words after the ampersand. This is the behaviour Rusties (members of the on-line aggregation of Neil fans a.k.a. The Rust list) and Winterlongers (the Australian subset thereof) characterize as HoGTT territory.

And if you are, in fact, a Heart of Gold Toe Tapper who wants a set list heavy on Harvest, Comes a Time, Harvest Moon and Silver & Gold you either don't shell out the bucks for a Crazy Horse show  or, having realized your mistake, cop it sweet and exercise due diligence next time around, because, somehow, I don't think Neil's going to be changing his modus operandi Horse-wise any time soon.

But if you're there for loud and electric you're almost guaranteed a good time.

That almost comes with a nod in the direction of well, you do realize he'll be playing a selection of his most recent stuff, don't you?

Assuming you've got all those bases covered (loud, electric, will contain recent material so there's not much room for older material) you're almost certainly in for a good time, from the opening chords of Love and Only Love to the last squalls of feedback at the end of My My Hey Hey and on through whatever Neil decides is going to constitute the encore this time around.

Love and Only Love, from where I'm sitting is close to the ideal opener in these circumstances, driven by a solid riff that allows the quartet to stretch a bit and blow whatever cobwebs might be in the vicinity away. That, I think, is an important consideration. Crazy Horse, in all it's ragged garage band glory, doesn't sit in the virtuoso I practice two to three hours every day, man sphere, and they need a chance to loosen up and find the groove. Love and Only Love certainly allows them to do that.

With the preliminaries out of the way, the groove located and the beast warmed up it's sort of into Greatest Hits mode for Powderfinger, which mightn't have been an actual hit, but occupies a significant place in Neil's epic repertoire. A nod to Rust Never Sleeps, and a classic song that's an almost perfectly self-contained saga.

From there Born in Ontario occupies the same sort of role as its cousin brother Homegrown, delivering a chunk of stomp along groove that equates to a bit of light and shade after Powderfinger in the lead up to what you'd have to describe as the first real set piece on the show.

Walk Like a Giant comes across pretty strongly as one of the centre pieces on Psychedelic Pill, but on stage it reveals a sense of rage that doesn't quite come across in the studio version. That's most obvious towards the end when plastic bags and sheets of newspaper start drifting across the stage as Neil and Old Black deliver squalls of sonic assault that equate to the end of the world as we know it.

That's my take on it, anyway. Walk Like a Giant takes the inner rage Neil mentions in Ontario and turns it into an apocalyptic vision that's diametrically opposed to the old T.S. Eliot not with a bang, with a whimper. It seems, as far as Neil is concerned, we're not going quietly into the night....

The environmental apocalypse gets another airing in Hole in the Sky, one of two so far unrecorded numbers in a fairly small setlist, and it may stay unrecorded because it may only exist as a wind down from what went before leading into an acoustic mini set in the middle of proceedings. Lyrically, it's a case of There's a hole in the sky and not much more, but the Horse harmonies help it work in ways a more verbose statement mightn't.

Both nights the appearance of the acoustic guitar and the neck brace produced a fairly hearty roar, suggesting the presence of a healthy contingent of HoGTTs and a strong hint of finally, here's something we know. Predictably, something we know turned out to be Heart of Gold, which might have been something but probably didn’t equate to much if you’re coming out of HoGTT Territory.

From there we got Twisted Road, another one I could have done without but can appreciate the reasons for its existence and inclusion in that particular slot.

And it's obvious there is a certain amount of thought that has gone into the presentation for these shows. Neil obviously wants a piano song in there, otherwise the piano wouldn't be there, and Singer Without a Song is going to be it. Seat him behind the old-fashioned upright on stage right, however, and he's out of sight of a fair section of audience. Billy Talbot's on stage to deliver some harmonies, and Poncho Sampedro has an acoustic guitar around his neck, but there's not much visual interest there. In that setting an attractive girl carrying a guitar case adds something. At least that's the way it looked from where I was sitting.

With the quiet bit out of the way the volume went back up for the second set piece, the quite magnificent Ramada Inn, like Walk Like a Giant one of the centre pieces of Psychedelic Pill, twenty minutes of thunder leavened with the harmonies on the And every morning comes the sun bit. HoGTTs can moan all they like about unfamiliar material and the lack of the likes of Down by the River, Cortez the Killer and Like a Hurricane, and, admittedly it would be nice to hear them, but when Neil can still produce something that's this good I, for one, won't be complaining.

Your mileage may vary on this, but the thirst piece highlight comes in the form of the mildly notorious Fuckin’ Up, which has been a regular part of the setlist since Ragged Glory and has evolved into an interesting piece of staged presentation that really takes off if the right people with the right gestures are in Neil and Poncho's line of sight. There was a fairly substantial Winterlong contingent along the rail, and they were right into goading and gesticulation mode, which made for some interesting visuals on the big screens on either side of the stage.

Not that they were looking at the big picture, of course.

After Sydney I ran a remark about his moment of prominence past the inimitable Stub King and got a Was I? In return, which of course explains why he ended up on the screen in the first place. It's fairly obvious Neil and Poncho are having fun with the current version, and that, I suspect helped shape what followed.

I've heard my share of concert recordings over the years, and most of them have been fairly light on for the on stage repartee, but something has changed over recent years.  Where once you might be lucky to get anything beyond a couple of How ya doin?s, the time machine sequence that leads into Cinnamon Girl is positively verbose, with wry remarks about those in the audience who wouldn't have been there yet as far as Zuma and Tonight's the Night are concerned.

Cinnamon Girl rocked, My My Hey Hey did likewise and you really got a sense of the mount of fun Neil and the Horse are having on stage when it gets to the obligatory encore. Perth had Roll Another Number, Adelaide got Like a Hurricane and I would have been happy to see LaH reprised in Brisbane or Sydney.

Instead, in Brisbane they led off with Opera Star (not played since the European tour in 2001) before heading off to Roll Another Number, while in Sydney two chords were all I needed to recognize Prisoners of Rock & Roll, which segued nicely into Opera Star.

Looking back, you might be inclined to think, despite Hughesy's enthusiasm, that one show is about enough, but with the interval between Sydney and the time this review makes its way onto the blog and into the Reviews section of the website there's one additional factor that suggests it's a case of too much Neil isn't nearly enough.

I refer, of course, to Wednesday's show at The Plenary, with Cortez the Killer, Dangerbird, Barstool Blues and Sedan Delivery turning up in the set list in a show that ran close to three hours.

Neil's inclined to the predictable once things have started moving but that doesn't necessarily mean he's going to stay that way. After two quite stellar shows you might be disappointed to have missed one that sailed right off into the stratosphere, but that's the way things are.

Should Neil be headed back this way with The Horse in tow, Hughesy's going, come hell or high water. Now for a triple serving of Bruce...


  1. Thanks Gary. And I hadn't even advised anyone it was up here. Better do that now...