At the Stockholm Music and Arts Festival, 3 August 2014
Neil Young is a man on a mission. His compulsion to confound and even alienate audiences is a longstanding calling that was certainly on display last night. It was almost a full hour of fairly obscure songs driven by wrenching epic guitar work-outs before the festival crowd got their first familiar song. And even that wasn’t one of Neil’s.
But his main mission of the day seems to be to address humanity’s ongoing plundering of the earth through wars and environmental destruction. Almost 90% of last night’s set list contained songs of anger at the current state of the world, and a plea for love to endure and to stand up and help him save the world.
This was a preachy set no doubt. And in terms of message it was reminiscent of some of the more didactic days of his Crosby, Stills and Nash and chums late 1960’s peace and love will conquer all philosophising.
Unfortunately Young’s more modern protest style songs, and two-thirds of the songs last night were from the 1980s onwards, don’t match the brilliance of his counter-culture era state of the nation addresses such as Ohio or Southern Man.
Even a less good Neil Young song though is still a pretty formidable thing and while they may lack musical and lyrical subtlety, last night’s Living with War for example, the title track of Young’s 2006 album attacking the War on Terror, and brand new song Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth with its plea for climate change to be addressed, “for our children,” are still good melodic rock songs.
Their musical lack of sophistication is also offset somewhat by their simple catchiness and surely this is the point. At 68 year’s old Young’s commitment and passion to his message is simply inspiring. He appears to be a man obsessed, perhaps driven by notions that time for him is running out. This idea comes across strongly in fact from his latest album, A letter Home.
An extremely low fi covers album, A Letter Home was released just over three months ago and not a single song from it was performed last night. But the album starts with a spoken message to his Mum in heaven about the state of the weather on Earth. He goes on to tell her that he misses her and will be up there with her soon “but not for a while as I still got a lot of work to do here.”
That work is clearly to make his audience wake up and help him with his environmental activism, in particular, to bring about the changes for a better world that the 1960s generation and he and his superstar pals seemed to give up on long ago.
And so dressed in black jeans, black boots, a black hat and black t’shirt with “Earth” printed across it, Young brought his work to Stockholm last night.
Opening with an epic guitar fuelled Love and Only Love from the 1990 garage band grunge era Ragged Glory album Neil howled the chorus “Hate is everything you think it is, love and only love with break it down.” The song set the standard for the night. Both lyrically, with its mix of anger and hope, and musically, roaring on for some 15 minutes in a thunderstorm of guitar solos with the three guitarists grouped tightly together in front of the drum kit in true Crazy Horse style.
Although this wasn’t quite a true Crazy Horse line up with bass player Billy Talbot having had a mild stroke and so replaced for this tour by long-term Young collaborator Rick Rosas. This left only drummer Ralph Molina from the original line up. And the presence, almost hidden behind the huge wall of closely packed together amplifiers, of two female backing singers seemed most un Crazy Horse like. However as the night progressed these singers proved a very worthwhile addition to the band, helping to simply emphasis the choruses.
The second track, the wonderful Powderfinger, a long time Crazy Horse concert favourite, though probably not a familiar song for a casual fan, suggested it was business as usual.
But then came the oddly resurrected and not particularly memorable Standing in the Light of Love, an unreleased song played live during a 2001 tour.
This was followed by the much better and rarely played Days That Used to Be, also from Ragged Glory. The song’s lyrics are particularly apt for Young’s seeming return to the ideas that once pervaded the music of his generation; “Ideas that once seem so right, now have gotten hard to say,” he sings. Yet last night, Young’s repetition of the line “Don’t rock the boat” over and over with a sardonic snarl between ironic musings such as “Change is good, but not right now!” felt like a big fuck you to anyone stood in the audience who has opted for “possessions and concessions.” I.e. pretty much all of us there.
After Living With War, and Young speaking directly to the audience for the first time to say “that’s a song we shouldn’t have to play anymore,” came another Ragged Glory number, Love to Burn. The messages of taking a chance on love and “you gotta take the first step” felt more about making a difference than romantic love, while the “spirit” of the song that speaks to Neil was surely last night the Sioux chief Crazy Horse riding across the stage on a huge backdrop.
The very obscure and fairly weak Name of Love from the pretty woeful Crosby Stills Nash and Young 1988 album American Dream continued the anti war and rise up “in the name of love” theme.
It was then, with the other musicians departing the stage, after well over an hour that the very patient but somewhat muted Swedish audience got their first hit: Bob Dylan’s seminal protest song Blowin’ in the Wind continuing Young’s how many more times message wonderfully.
Young’s solo acoustic guitar and harmonica backed rendition of Blowin’ in the Wind is actually much closer to the original and delivered far more sincerely than any recent Dylan version of the song. In fact a Neil Young concert today is totally unlike a contemporary Dylan show. Young’s voice, guitar playing and energy are almost unchanged from his much younger self and are wonderful to behold. And he seems to care about what he is doing, even if that is frustrating the audience.
The Stockholmer’s were over the moon at the playful conversation between some hecklers and Neil as a guitar tech dealt with an issue. “I love you Neil” yelled a fan. “Well I don’t know you that well,” retorted Neil, bringing to mind his disdain for empty plaudits. But the love was returned with a fine rendition of his biggest hit Heart of Gold, which while performed well, with Neil nodding appreciatingly at the backing singers afterwards, the song’s inclusion felt like a token crowd pleasing gesture.
Much more fun and one of the highlights of the evening was Barstool Blues, a fairly anonymous but raw and brilliant Crazy Horse song from the 1975 Zuma album. With this and the next track, Psychedelic Pill, a newer Crazy Horse song from the 2012 album of the same name, Young and guitar player Frank Poncho Sampedro seemed to start to really enjoy themselves.
Barstool Blues had Young singing the lines “once there was a friend of mine who died a thousand deaths, his life was filled with parasites,” with his arm around Sampedro whose fractured hand caused many European concerts to be cancelled last year. “He trusted in a woman and on her he made his bets,” Young continued, pointing at Sampedro who nodded before kicking Young’s arse as he walked away.
Psychedelic Pill was introduced by Young as for being for “all the beautiful women out there” while carving female curves with his hand. Unsurprisingly in gender progressive Sweden this was met by, apart from a few groans, a very hushed response. A pretty uninspiring rocker about a party girl looking for a good time, had Young and Sampedro laughing away but otherwise was a rather pointless inclusion. Another fuck you perhaps?
Not so for Cortez the Killer though, one of Young’s greatest songs, and performed last night with all the lyrical clarity and hushed delivery building to intense guitar solos that it deserves. The song, about the Spanish conquistadores’ destruction of the paradise of Mexico was, as well as being brilliant, apt to the message of the night too.
The main set concluded with Young offering the audience the choice of Down by the River or Rockin’ in the Free World. To help decide after both got an equally enthusiastic response, Young wandered over to the life-size wooden sculpture of a native American chief to the side of the stage, called Woody, and who he had often walked over to solo with during the evening. Young informed us that Woody wasn’t very interested in either song. “Woody says they are both old songs and have the same chords anyway…” I think we can safely read Young’s own views in Woody’s here.
By now the crowd were getting excited and calling out for their favourite Young tracks. On hearing a request for Comes a Time, the late 70s mellow acoustic bucolic celebration of settling down, Young seemed incredulous. A seriously rocking Rockin’ in the Free World immediately broke loose. The only appropriate choice for tonight’s thinking, with the chorus repeated endlessly and the audience all fully joining in. Brilliant.
The single song encore was the aforementioned brand new Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth. Young starts the song with a blistering single note spikey guitar riff and despite its simple catchy melody and obvious call for environmental action lyrics, the song sounds like a good un. And even on a first hearing the audience were singing along the infectious chorus, while Sampedro interjected the titular refrain with “You!”
This was not the greatest ever Neil Young concert by any means, and for casual festival going fans hoping for Old Man it must have been rather bewildering. But it was a concert with an important message and the passionate delivery of that message, along with a few fuck yous by a man whose musical prowess is completely undiminished made this Neil Young concert a completely thrilling event. Long may you run.