Neil Young, Hammersmith Apollo, London
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Pressure Point, Brighton
Even at 62, Neil Young shows he is still capable of putting on a persuasive, three-hour live show
Sunday 23 March 2008
Before we head to Hammersmith, every single one of us has dusted off our favourite old Neil Young album to get us in the mood. But nobody has played the one I played. Because my favourite old Neil Young album – in fact, the only Neil Young album I'll have in the house – is the one the critics chortle about, and the man himself pretends never happened. (He doesn't dream of playing any of it tonight.)
I'm talking about Trans, Neil Young's synth album (yes, you read that correctly, synth album) from 1982. Opening with cheesy hoedown "Little Thing Called Love", as though hoping to kid the snoozy record label that he was delivering more of the same-old, it quickly turns into anything but that. It arose from an attempt to communicate with his son, who was born with cerebral palsy and seemed to respond better to Young's voice when put through a vocoder (and, frankly, so do I). The result is a record about experiencing the world through the medium of machinery, and inadvertently invents the Daft Punk sound some 15 years ahead of its time.
I mention this not to score cheap contrarian points, but to highlight the fact that Neil Young, who is generally held to be a living manual on how to prolong the rage against the dying of the light, could actually have played it a whole lot less safe than he did.
Just as Paul Weller came scuttling back to rock after the Style Council, after his turn-of-the-1980s experimentalism Neil Young came running on back to the traditionalist fold.
So, the Y who went renegade from CS&N nowadays gives you it straight: a three-hour marathon – the first half acoustic, the second electric – taking in his entire career (the clanging finale is "The Sultan", a Sixties instrumental by one of his earliest bands, the Squires). There's no "Like a Hurricane" or "Heart of Gold", though: one trait Young shares with Bob Dylan is a refusal to play the greatest hits. Instead, he digs deep into the vaults ("Mexico" being one particularly obscure mid-1970s out-take).
We do get "Harvest", his wayward wail still almost intact (an occasional crack the only reminder that he's now 62), and a piano rendition of "Tonight's the Night", with a band which includes his own wife Pegi.
He has a lot of fun (breaking out the banjo for "Homegrown", duelling with long-standing drummer Ralph Molina on "Fuckin' Up"), tells a lot of stories, and delivers the odd sermon on electric cars. Young is, of course, an icon of North America's liberal left, even if his credentials haven't always been rock solid: in 1985, infamously, he told an interviewer he wouldn't want a "faggot" handling his groceries, because of Aids. On the plus side, his anti-racist song "Southern Man" was enough to prompt Lynyrd Skynyrd into replying with "Sweet Home Alabama" (and anything that got under those rednecks' skins can't be bad). He's still got a functioning moral compass: his forthcoming Hop Farm show in Kent is promoted with the strapline "No Registration. No Sponsorship. No Branding".
Indeed, it's difficult to sustain an instinctive hatred of Young in the face of his evident influence on the likes of Dinosaur Jr, Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and Pixies, and in the face of his persuasive, if somewhat exhausting live show.
Yeah, he's all right, Neil Young. But I wouldn't want him handling my groceries.
A big, bearded, bespectacled bear of a man, who just seconds earlier was manning his own merch stall, does the silent fingertip "kazamm" gesture which is the universal sign for "I don't quite trust that the technology is functioning correctly, but here goes nothing", and announces himself. "Hi, we're Casiotone for the Painfully Alone from Chicago... this is a Christmas song."
The "we" is weird. Not only is Owen Ashworth alone for most of the show. (He's eventually joined by Jenny Herbinson, a singer in a smock dress and Rosemary's Baby hair.) He's a classic loner, in the same way that the chief suspect whenever a kid gets napped is always a "loner" to their neighbours. The Californian thirtysomething is so much of an Outsider Musician, in fact, that even Brighton's Outsider Music aficionados haven't turned up to see him.
Hunched over a hand-held mic, triggering pretty arpeggios and violent squalls from little electronic boxes barely big enough to take a jack plug, his voice wavers tearfully as he delivers subtly murderous lines such as "I put a penny on a railroad track for you to pick up". He's the postal service for guys who didn't get the girl, didn't kiss her like Clark Gable, didn't take her to such great heights.
While we're playing the comparisons game, CFTPA are also suitable listening for fans of Magnetic Fields and Laptop, and there are four albums of this stuff – that is, songs about living in studio apartments with mice on the floor, permanently on the brink of New Orderish brilliance – available on Tomlab.
In song, Ashworth is sincere to the point of Asperger's; in chat he's drolly self-effacing to the point of non-existence. After a fine cover of Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia", he deadpans, "That guy writes pretty good songs." He ditches one song because "the ceilings are too high". If you don't love him... frankly I won't be surprised. And neither will he. But this guy writes pretty good songs.
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