Neil Young, Playhouse, Edinburgh
Enduring master delivers rough and the smooth
Tuesday 04 March 2008
Pity the man sheltering in the front door of the venue, the one brandishing the sign requesting "1 rustie [sic] ticket please". As an unexpected early spring snow falls, the hopefully referential tone of his message isn't bringing out the Samaritan in any of the fellow devotees filing past. After all, a visit from Neil Young is a big date on any gigging calendar, but to a certain brand of middle-aged, quasi-autistic music lover (mostly male), it's an experience which redefines live anew.
One can only hope he managed to get in. While there was a particularly chilly spark in the air outside, warm magic unfolded within this grand old venue. Our shinily modern understanding of the sensitive, heartfelt and quite often tepid singer-songwriter was swept aside by a man who has single-mindedly combined epic tenderness and epic confrontation in his art for 40 years or more. The rough and the smooth of Young's work was judiciously split into two hour-long segments here, one acoustic and one electric. The gentler of these two styles came first, with Young's mere presence on stage carrying a dramatic weight which suggests he might see his show as a theatrical performance, as much as a gig.
Dressed in a battered cream suit, unkempt white shirt and scuffed trainers, Young plays the dishevelled musical polymath. Once opening pleasantries are exchanged with a gorgeous "From Hank to Hendrix", he rises from the nest of guitars in centre stage, warms his hands against the orange light behind his head and strolls the stage like a man who's unsure quite where he is. He strokes his chin for a few seconds, affects a fearful cower when the audience's applause swells towards him and half-stumbles to the piano.
It might be a comment on his own age (62 now), or – more likely – he's just rebelling against a lukewarm conformity of most forms of stage banter. Regardless, near-perfect versions of some iconic songs follow, Young teasing us with adjusted, semi-jammed intros to the most famous including "A Man Needs A Maid", "Heart Of Gold" and "Don't Let It Bring You Down".
His timeless, crystalline falsetto during "Old Man", in particular, was a stunning moment among many. Amidst such a catalogue of definitive song writing, in fact, the real reward is in Young's unique voice, so well suited to both country and rock, and unchanged after all these years.
The second half of the show – performed with a band of acolytes from down the years, including his wife Pegi – didn't allow for such wilfully obscure character playing. Now dressed in a scruffy, paint-splattered black suit, Young once again emphasises an artfully frayed aesthetic. This recreates itself in noisy, vibrant rockers like "Hey Hey My My", "Down By The River", "Powderfinger" and an excellent new track "Dirty Old Man".
And that was it – no politics, no musings on mortality (Young recently recovered from a brain aneurism) and no unnecessary showboating. Just a repertoire of great songs from an enduring, eccentric modern master.
A cautionary tale for ambitious would-be authors.
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