March 3rd 2008
To paraphrase Dolly Parton, it must take a lot of care to look as chaotic as this. I’m referring not to Neil Young himself, not exactly, but to the astonishingly cluttered stage around him, dressed to look like – well, backstage, really, behind the scenes at some lost old-time opry. There are klieg lights and spots strewn around, cables and stands everywhere, a huge, antique wind-machine with wooden blades, variously battered musical instruments apparently abandoned at random, and a single, ominous, baffling red house telephone of roughly 1974 vintage. Everything looking worn and used and tested and true, and in no need of replacement. Oh, and, obviously, there is a man standing way at the back, turned away from the audience, silently painting amid a stack of large canvas backdrops.
It’s a stage-set, of course, and the first clue that, whatever he’s engaged upon amid the red-velvet splendour of Edinburgh’s venerable Playhouse theatre for his first UK gig in five years, Young, who makes his bizarre entrance trying to hide behind the painter as he carries a large canvas bearing a single “N” to an easel at the front of the stage, sees it as a performance in every sense of the word. The drama’s precise meaning will remain unclear to all but him, but it’s as compellingly weird, as hauntingly beautiful, as stormy and electrifying as anything he’s ever done.
Even by his own considerable standards, Young, wearing the kind of loose, off-white suit a US Defense Secretary might favour for a field visit to Iraq, appears to be in a strange mood. The audience bays but he ignores them, utters not a word. Sometimes, when the shouting gets too loud, he throws his arms over his face, warding it off in a manner that suggests Marcel Marceau being spooked by a horse; at one point, he actually falls cowering to his knees.
He sits alone inside a circle of acoustic guitars – seven of them, plus a banjo – absently, fondly, touching one and then the other, as though waiting for them to tell him which one wants to go first. He dips his harmonica in a china teacup of water like a man dunking biscuits in a rest home. He looks shambling, distracted; and then he starts to play, and his focus and intensity sucks the breath from you.
The facts are that we get a solo acoustic set followed by an electric set, and anyone who has glanced at setlists from earlier in this tour will know that he has been throwing in songs from some of the most obscure corners of his catalogue. Knowing that in advance, though, does nothing to dilute the impact when, after a gorgeously warm “From Hank to Hendrix,” Young begins “Ambulance Blues.”
The abandoned closer to 1974’s desolate On the Beach is a song he has barely, if ever, played live before this tour, but one that certain fans have tattooed on their minds. All the same, tonight, as he hunches over the ever-dying thing, it feels almost as though he is creating it on the spot, sucking each stray chorus out of the air, forever fading away, forever coming back in with one more last thought.
He follows with three more songs you thought you would never hear him play: the unreleased “Sad Movies,” then, shambling to one of the pianos, a truly astonishing “A Man Needs A Maid” (substituting the recorded version’s orchestral fills with chilling, Dr Phibes-meets-Trans blasts on an aged electric keyboard), and “Try,” another unreleased song from the legendary aborted Homegrown album. Lurching from these into some of his most iconic “Neil Young” songs – “Harvest”, “After The Gold Rush”, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”, “Heart Of Gold” – the impression is of an iPod on shuffle, and on fire.
That frayed falsetto sounds as strong, as pure, as distressed as it ever has; close your eyes, you could be listening to an Archive recording from three, four decades ago.
Between songs, he keeps up his silent, shambling routine, wandering the stage like a man who doesn’t know where he is or why, sometimes standing and staring vacantly off at what the painter is painting, still working away at the rear of the stage. At one point, Young stands and holds his hands up to one of the little purple standing spotlights, warming them on the light – at first I think it’s a comment on the bitingly cold night leaking into the theatre from outside. An hour later, I’m not so sure.
We’re coming toward the end of a colossal electric set. Backed by veteran associates Ralph Molina, Rick Rosas and Ben Keith, Young, changed into a paint-splattered black suit, has been wailing and whaling away at the guitar he calls Old Black as if he might never get the chance to play her again. Dropping the stumbling gait he affected for the acoustic half, he’s leaning, grooving, stepping ass-shaking and almost pogoing as he tears out damn-near definitive workings of mangled warhorses including “Down By the River”, “Hey Hey, My My” and a towering “Powderfinger.”
He’s climaxing, though, with a voyage through one of his newest songs, “Hidden Path.” Largely written off as a meandering lowpoint on the Chrome Dreams II album, the song is transformed into a long, classic, violent stone jam to stand alongside any of the above. 15 burning minutes in, it’s seemingly endless, and you don’t want it to end. And, at its most intense, as he pulls at the howling riff, Young wanders to a massive klieg light that drenches the theatre in a blinding golden glow and stares into it, bathes in it, as though trying to climb inside the light, fuse with it, or evaporate. Thinking back to this little pantomime with the smaller light, I wonder, is there a connection here? What is he trying to say?
Who could ever say? Rummaging through the backstage of his mind, Neil Young, at 62, is, thrillingly, still unknowable, as far out there and as far inside himself as he ever has been.