ROCK / Fruitful late harvest: Andy Gill on the unlikely but attractive combination of Neil Young and Booker T & the MGs in Finsbury Park

ON PAPER, it just doesn't work: Neil Young, the most quixotically gifted singer-songwriter of his generation, given to wild mood swings between maudlin sentiment and raw, sculpted guitar feedback frenzy; and Booker T & the MGs, the tightest, crispest soul band of them all. But somehow these presumed opposites, who first hooked up at the Dylan 30th anniversary concert a few months ago, attract perfectly.

To be honest, the match is a little one-sided: as backing band, the MGs have cleaved to Young's style rather than vice versa, applying a tough, stable bedrock where Crazy Horse were once looser and wirier in their support. It makes little difference during the country-rock numbers like 'Helpless' and 'Harvest Moon', which are log- falling territory for pros like Steve Cropper, 'Duck' Dunn and drummer du jour Jim Keltner, but allows Young greater latitude on the long guitar workouts that are today's main course.

Flanked by the impassive figures of Cropper and Dunn, he staggers dazedly around centre stage in London, tearing howls of anguish from his instrument, deconstructing the guitar solo in 'Like a Hurricane' into blocks of feedback and bent-string phrases. It's astonishing, a sonic language all his own, but it's been learnt well by the MGs, who're always there to fall back on, always on the one whatever Neil does to the beat.

Lip-service of a sort is paid to the backing band's heritage by an encore of 'Dock of the Bay', with Cropper's liquid guitar break note-for-note identical to his original one, but otherwise the band are restricted to incidental moments, like Booker T's soulful organ chording in 'Motorcycle Mama' and churchier solo in 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart'.

Finsbury Park is like a giant Leslie cabinet, swirling the sound around in a way that, for instance, ruined Van Morrison's set a few weeks ago; but it's almost right for Young, adding dimensions of depth and space to solos that are already virtually three-dimensional. His performance is at times quite extraordinary, particularly given the basic nature of his equipment: most guitarists rely upon an array of effects pedals to subtly alter their tone, but Neil has just one, an immense red metal board, a yard wide with one industrial-strength pedal in the middle, on which he stamps to send his sound into overdrive.

Today, he stamps on it in almost every song, drawing routine 10-minute diversions out of three-minute songs, then refusing to let them go when they're done with, chasing lines of feedback round each song's conclusion in the manner familiar from his Weld live album. It's especially effective on the encore of 'All along the Watchtower', with Young repeating 'There must be some way out of here' over and over as the song grinds slowly into the ground. Earlier, interrupting the intro to the low- key 'Harvest Moon', he'd professed to hear some feedback creeping in where it shouldn't - '. . . and I hate feedback,' he'd screamed, self-mockingly.

The concert is concluded, as you knew it would, by a storming version of 'Rockin' in the Free World' - introduced as 'an old folk song' - on which Neil and the MGs are joined by the top support band Pearl Jam, one of the grunge outfits who've climbed to fame on the tails of Young's plaid shirts: even for a style vacuum like Neil, fashion comes full circle eventually.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments