Neil Young, Hop Farm Festival, Kent

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The Independent Culture

Walking on in a paint-splattered jacket, Neil Young salaams modestly. Soon, he's bending over his guitar, trying to buck it into life. A large fan makes his long, thinning hair blow back, as if he's always in his music's hurricane. By the time he finishes two hours later with The Beatles' "A Day in the Life", the crowd have had exactly what they came for.

Young's headlining of this new one-day festival in Kent drew veterans who recall Dylan at Blackbushe in 1978. Sponsor-free, the atmosphere is warmly low-key. As a solo Rufus Wainwright sings "Hallelujah", even the rain burns away. My Morning Jacket's jam-band tendencies drift pleasantly in the sudden hot sun. Supergrass play a hit-heavy, gracious set; the bittersweet summer anthem "Alright" is greeted like an old friend.

Primal Scream, though, seem intent on reducing their adventurous music to the banal level of their lyrics. "Jailbird", once considered a retrograde joke, is the hard-rocking highlight. Even "Movin' On Up" has its acid house keyboards stripped back to boogie-woogie. The new songs already sound tired.

But nothing really matters except Neil. "My, My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" feels like tonight's cornerstone. This 1979 song gives the old news of Elvis's death and Johnny Rotten's advent the urgency of definitive events: "Rock'n'roll will never die, there's more to this than meets the eye," he sings. "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" is next, 1969 honkytonk ennui sounding now like a bracing rejection of nowhere.

He's generally in amiable mood. There are singalongs to the acoustic country harmonies of "Oh Lonesome Me, "Heart of Gold", "Old Man" and even "The Needle and the Damage Done", all sung by Young dead straight. But, perching on a church organ for "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)", an ecological hymn that could be from the American Civil War, he sounds weirder, stronger. Only "No Hidden Path" sees him really stretch out on the guitar, in an unevolving way that proves he's no Hendrix, until a coda of deep, slow feedback.

"A Day in the Life" is a quietly wonderful encore, played as a Young song from the 1960s, with echoes of The Beatles' "yeah, yeah, yeah" past. It's been a thoughtful if rarely transcendent show. The crowd are palpably disappointed when he stops. And, on cue, the rain starts again.

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