Neil Young, Apollo, London

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The Independent Culture

In recent years, we have grown used to seeing Neil Young in electric mode, his primary source of instrumental expression being the kind of power-surge guitar that he once used to fire Crazy Horse. This is the Canadian veteran's first solo tour of Europe since 1989, however, and his approach is unplugged and intimate.

The instrumental line-up comprises an upright piano and a grand piano, three acoustic guitars and a pump organ. The stage is candlelit, but Young's big grey sideburns can still be discerned. Dressed in a suit jacket, jeans and trainers, he sits down, makes some adjustments to his harmonica-holder and has a slow pull on a pint of Guinness. With almost three hours of music in the offing, there's no need to rush into this.

He plays two sets, the first of which is wholly devoted to his forthcoming concept album, Greendale. Set in a fictional town in north California, the record focuses on the Green family, whose members include Earl, a Vietnam veteran who paints extraordinary, psychedelic pictures, and his beautiful, eco-activist daughter, Sun.

But the devil hangs out in Greendale, too, and when Sun's brother, Jed, kills the police officer Carmichael after a drugs bust, the media's invasion of grandpa Green's privacy prompts a heart attack in the old man. All told, it's an odd but compelling song-cycle, Young's richly drawn vignettes exploring personal and macro-politics, and sometimes sugaring the pill with black, bone-dry humour.

The new songs are mostly spare, harmonica and rolling acoustic-guitar numbers with a talking-blues approach. As he rarely relies on the aide-mémoire of rhyme, you wonder how Young has managed to commit each shape-shifting lyric to memory. He doesn't reveal any song titles, but one new composition, possibly called "Some Day You'll Find Everything You're Looking for", is quite beautiful. At its close, the audience's roar signals the song's acceptance into the Neil Young canon, and by the close of set one, Young has débuted an album's worth of untested material without one heckler requesting a golden oldie.

By set two, though, nobody's holding back. "'Rust Never Sleeps'," shouts one optimist; someone else's request for "Rockin' in the Free World" is met by tuts of disdain from the crowd's Harvest-era purists. Ignoring all that, Young picks up a 12-string guitar and delivers an inspired version of "Cortez the Killer", from 1975's Zuma, his guitar-playing all sussed dynamics and magical flights of fancy.

There's better yet to come, and even if revised piano arrangements on "After the Gold Rush" speaks of Young's overfamiliarity with the song, neither it nor "Heart of Gold" is dogged by the kind of apathy that reportedly took the edge of the old stuff on some of the earlier European dates.

"When are you coming back, Neil?" a smitten older woman enquires at the end. Young says he doesn't know, but maintains that he will keep on touring for as long as his health allows. "Only another 20 years to go before I catch up Bob Dylan," he adds drily.

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