There are two kinds of live artists: those who play the hits, and those who don’t.
One of my favourite Neil Young stories is about the time Young played a set of completely new, unheard songs to an audience, then told them “here’s one you’ve heard before” only to then dash their hopes of hearing something familiar by repeating one of the new songs he’d just played. Pure trolling, early seventies-style.
At Paul McCartney’s recent Radio 4 appearance Paul Weller (in the “don’t” camp) asked McCartney (a “play the hits” kind of guy) whether he grew a little weary of playing the songs his audience expected. McCartney admitted he did a little, but played the hits anyway because as a fan he always wanted whoever he was seeing to play their best songs. *
Last night, and indeed throughout this tour with his new band The Promise of the Real, Neil Young has become an artist who plays his back catalogue. The O2 Arena was treated to a beautifully paced set of classic songs, into which were sprinkled a couple of newer songs.
When Neil Young – always one to follow his own path – has a tour where he does play the hits, you have to ask yourself, “why?”
Young has never been afraid of making hard decisions. From quitting Buffalo Springfield to go solo, to ditching Crazy Horse to join Crosby Stills and Nash, to ditching Crosby Stills and Nash to team up with Crazy Horse again, Young has always followed his instincts. So why now?
The answer may lie in the band that is backing him. The Promise of the Real include two of Willie Nelson’s sons, Micah and Lukas plus a formidable rhythm section, all of whom are young enough to have grown up listening to Young’s music. Already a unit, POTR jammed with Young at 2014’s Farm Aid and Young subsequently asked them to back him. They have the energy and enthusiasm of youth and it is suiting the seventy year old Young well.
Although Young may be playing with a new band partly because of health issues with Crazy Horse (bassist Billy Talbot suffered a stroke in 2014) the new album “The Monsanto Years” and tour appears to have given Young a fresh start. And what’s more, the band has huge enthusiasm and appear to be enjoying playing the songs as much as the audience are hearing them. As someone who is too young to have witnessed a youthful Crazy Horse, it makes me wonder how the two compare.
I witnessed something similar in Iggy Pop’s recent tour, when it was clear that Josh Homme, Matt Helders and Dean Fertita couldn’t believe their luck who they were getting to play with.
The result is that Young’s willingness to play his best known songs and some lesser heard tracks has increased. As well as “The Monsanto Years”, this is also a journey through the past.
Young begins with After The Gold Rush, just him and a piano. Then it’s his guitar and harmonica the latter of which nestles in a round the neck holder, making Young stand like an unmasked, cowboy-hatted Darth Vader, playing Heart of Gold, Hank to Hendrix and The Needle and the Damage Done: crowd pleasing stuff. As “Needle…” finishes, we might be at Massey Hall in ’71.
But tonight we get to experience all sides of Young. His more mellow, acoustic stuff? Yup – Harvest is given a good airing. Ditch Trilogy? Yup – there’s Walk On and Revolution Blues from On The Beach. The nineties comeback? Absolutely.
“Love To Burn” is one of a few songs from Ragged Glory, and it marks the arrival of Young’s “Old Black” – Young eases Billy Gibbons-style warm, fuzzy tones from his super charged Les Paul. “Love and Only Love” finds a groove and keeps running with it, thrillingly so. Neil Young the guitar-hero jamming endlessly with his band? Yes, he’s here too.
Yet the set passes by in a flash. The sound is noticeably immaculate. Words (Between the Lines of Age) is simply brilliant. Bouncing on his toes and pacing up and down like a boxer sparring with his band, Young plays an astounding Revolution Blues. It merges into the title track of the new album effortlessly, before another Ragged Glory-era encore of “F–in’ Up” brings everything to a close.
Neil Young has been many things over the years. Balladeer, folk-hero, guitar hero and Godfather of grunge. On this tour we get to enjoy – and compare – them all.
It’s quite a journey.
* There are many possible reasons for not playing your hits including:
- You are tired of playing them.
- You are embarrassed by the songs now.
- The song was personal to you or meant something to you, and you are no longer that person, so to sing it would mean you are being insincere.
- You’re a git.
- Answers 1, 2 or 3 – and answer number four.
- After the Gold Rush
- Heart of Gold
- From Hank to Hendrix
- The Needle and the Damage Done
- Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)
- Out on the Weekend
- Western Hero
- Hold Back the Tears
- If I Could Have Her Tonight
- Words between the lines of age
- Walk On
- Love To Burn
- Mansion on the Hill
- Seed Justice
- Revolution Blues
- Monsanto Years
- After The Garden
- Love and only Love
- F–kin’ Up
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