Grizzled and jowled beneath the trademark black fedora and wearing a baggy t-shirt emblazoned with ‘EARTH’, last night at Liverpool Arena Neil Young was on a mission. To save the world, no less.
Young came on stage at around 8:45 with Crazy Horse – here comprising long-time collaborator in epic noise Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro (white-haired, tubby, wearing even baggier t-shirt) on guitar and keyboards and Ralph Molina on drums, with Rick Rosas on bass (standing in for Billy Talbot who recently suffered a stroke). To the rear of the stage, were Dorene Carter and YaDonna West whose backing vocals burnished the band’s fearsomely physical interpretations of numbers from the back catalogue, plus some surprises.
They began with ‘Love And Only Love’ from one of my favourite Young albums, 1990’s Ragged Glory. ‘Love and only love will endure’, Neil insisted. Two more songs from the same album, ‘Days That Used To Be’ and ‘Love To Burn’ seemed to reinforce the message:
People say don’t rock the boat,
let things go their own way
Ideas that once seem so right,
now have gotten hard to say
A theme was emerging, with Neil insisting that though we may be ‘just another hundred thousand miles away/From days that used to be’, the old values of sixties protest are still valid. It’s not that simple, of course. Outside the Arena we had had to pass the flags and banners of the Friends of Palestine protest against the Israeli assault on Gaza and Neil’s planned appearance in Tel Aviv (a concert now called off due to the security situation). Young been under pressure to abandon the gig by the increasingly influential boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement. Pink Floyd guitarist Roger Waters had joined the pressure with an open letter to Young asking him to cancel the show – something which the otherwise politically-engaged, though often wayward artist had resisted.
It’s a debatable issue, but I wonder whether we are approaching a tipping point where artists will consider it as morally repugnant to perform in Israel as it once was to appear in South Africa during apartheid.
However. Young once said: ‘As I get older, I get smaller. I see other parts of the world I didn’t see before. Other points of view. I see outside myself more’. He has been associated with many causes, particularly environmental issues and the rights of indigenous peoples. He campaigns against fracking and has toured Canada in support of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and its fight against oil companies determined to exploit the tar sands of northern Alberta.
It’s all marketing. It’s all big money. This oil is all going to China. It’s not for Canada. It’s not for the United States. It’s not ours – it belongs to the oil companies, and Canada’s government is behind making this happen. It’s truly a disaster.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the Arena (photos: Liverpool Echo)
So, three songs into the Liverpool set, we get ‘After the Goldrush’, his dream vision of environmental disaster from 1970 that seems more chilling as the years pass (and as Neil updates the signature line which now goes: ‘Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century’). Introducing his acoustic take on Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ (‘a song that never ages’), Young observed that ‘this world is full of damage’. It’s a song that he memorably reinterpreted on Weld in 1991 at the time of the Gulf War. Then it was drenched in angry, Jimi Hendrix-style electric guitar; tonight he returns to its original incarnation:
How many years can a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
How many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
Questions that remain unanswered. Which is why it’s important that song continues to be sung.
As far as Neil was concerned, all this was leading to his new song, ‘Who’s gonna stand up and save the earth?’, unveiled as one of the two encores. It’s a magnificent addition to the Young canon, a new ‘Ohio’. Like so many of Young’s songs, it states its position simply, even it might be said, simplistically. But what a shot of adrenaline it gives. It is magnificent, a powerful assertion of environmental values, challenging the policies of governments and multinationals:
Protect the wild
Protect the land, free the man.
Take out the dams
Stand up to oil
Protect the plants
Renew the soil.
Who’s gonna stand up and save the earth?
Who’s gonna say that she’s had enough.
Who’s gonna take on the big machine?
Who’s gonna stand up and save the earth?
The set, which lasted just over two hours, also featured more recent and some obscure material. ‘Separate Ways’ is a song from an unreleased 1970s album Homegrown, while ‘Barstool Blues’ comes from from Zuma in the same period. Every now and again, Neil would wander over to the side of the stage to whisper in the ear of a tall wooden Indian that stood there, reminding me of Hank Williams’ ‘Kaw-Liga’ who ‘just stood there and never let it show’. Then there was ‘Goin’ Home’ from 2002’s Are You Passionate? and the title track from 2012’s Psychedelic Pill. The latter was illuminated in a timely way by one of those rotating light shows that were ubiquitous in the sixties in those places where you went ‘looking for a good time’.
Light show recreation during ‘Psychedelic Pill’
For me, these were the least engaging moments in a great concert. There were many highlights, though. The short acoustic interval in which Neil covered Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and only had to strum the first two chords of ‘Heart Of Gold’ to be met with a roar of approval, was a high point, as was the finale – the great, ironic (and often misunderstood) anthem, ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’.
The band returned to the stage for two encores – the first of them was the new song ‘Who’s Gonna Stand Up And Save The Earth?’, an environmental battle cry that comes from the same place as ‘Mother Earth’ two decades ago. But while that took the form of a soaring hymn to gaia, this one is a pounding cry to arms, full of rage against the money men and the corporations exploiting the earth. It’s got the same elemental feel as ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’, and could be a hit single (if there is still such thing). That was followed by a spectacular rendition of ‘Hurricane’ which culminated in a ferocious storm of electric noise – splintering mountains of bass rumble and feedback.
You are just a dreamer, and I am just a dream.
That perfect feeling when time just slips
Tectonic plates ground the world to smithereens as Sampredo manipulated a floating keyboard with great ferocity, Neil shredded every single string on his guitar, as he left the last lines shimmering and echoing around the arena:
I’m gettin’ blown away
To somewhere safer where the feeling stays.
I want to love you but I’m getting blown away.
It’s nearly 40 years since I last saw Young – at Wembley in 1974. I can’t honestly recall much about that, apart from the sense of a long autumn day in bright sunshine and fragments of Joni Mitchell’s set, though I have written about it in this post. That astonishing event (The Band, Joni Mitchell with Tom Scott’s LA Express, plus four hours of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on one bill) came at the end of CSN&Y’s legendary 1974 tour. This week I listened to the newly-released collection of recordings from that tour (including some from the Wembley gig), curated by Graham Nash. On the whole, it’s Neil’s contributions which stand out, surviving the test of time.
It’s also 40 years since the release of On the Beach, an album I’ve always appreciated, even though it was panned when it first came out, its bleakness too much of a contrast to its predecessor, Harvest. The blog Johanna’s Visions has an excellent round-up of facts and opinions on the album: July 16: 40 year anniversary for On The Beach by Neil Young.
Now, nearly half a century later and a pensioner myself, I had spent an evening watching four grizzled pensioners deliver a performance of high-octane intensity. Young, the godfather of grunge, had confirmed that his star still burns brightly. With the extended solos of wailing, distorted guitar, the strong riffs and heavy drumming, Young, Sampredo and Molina demonstrated that age cannot wither them.
As we streamed out onto the Liverpool waterfront a huge full moon hung in a cloudless sky: harvest moon (almost).
Love and Only Love
Days That Used to Be
After the Gold Rush
Love to Burn
Don’t Cry No Tears
Blowin’ in the Wind (acoustic)
Heart of Gold (acoustic)
Rockin’ in the Free World
Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth
Like A Hurricane
- Neil Young and Crazy Horse top 5 performances Europe Summer 2014 (Johanna’s Visions)