Two years ago, the Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, best known for his restaging of the 1984 Battle of Orgreave between the police and striking miners, pitched up at the Frieze Art Fair in London with a single piece of work for sale, a poster that offered a novel twist on a famous Christian car-bumper sticker. Against a plain black background was a simple white slogan arranged over five decks. It read: "What Would Neil Young Do?"
It's the inaugural Hop Farm Festival in Kent, and Neil Young, headlining, is flanked by two artists. Centre stage is Eric Johnson, Young's road manager, who sits painting bright, bold pieces throughout the show, and delivering works – each one themed around one of Young's songs – to an easel stage front. Stage left, just visible behind a looming speaker stack is The Independent Magazine's own on-site artist, Lucinda Rogers, busily enacting the lyrics to Young's 2005 song "The Painter": "The painter stood/ Before her work/ She looked around every where/ She saw the pictures and she painted them/ She picked the colours from the air".
The Hop Farm is the music promoter Vince Power's return to the festival circuit after a three-year-hiatus following the sale of his Mean Fiddler empire. It's also his attempt to return the UK festival experience to the pre-mid-1990s world of "No sponsorship, no branding, no registration, no VIP areas". Hence the single stage and the appearance of Young, whose "This Note's for You" declared: "Ain't singing for Pepsi/ Ain't singin' for Coke/ I don't sing for nobody/ Make me look like a joke." Hence, also, the presence of small-scale food vendors selling such earthy fare as the "Monster Yorkie Pudding Wrap", and the monopoly on alcohol of the Workers Beer Company, which raises money for trade unions and dishes out its lager in no-logo cups.
Lucinda has been wandering around this huge county showground field since 10am, somehow managing to capture serendipitous moments of piquancy amid the hubbub: a tired lighting rigger snoozing in a hammock and the lower-bill LA country-rockers Everest in a moment of quiet reflection before opening for their rock'n'roll hero. She also succeeds in drawing some of the 30,000 plastic-ponchoed punters relaxing in the mire churned up by the rain, and the heat and press of a busy beer tent in the late afternoon. The coup, though, is persuading Elliott Roberts, Young's formidable manager of more than 40 years, to allow her to capture the obdurate rock colossus himself on stage.
It's an extraordinary performance. Tricked out in a black jacket, white shirt and combat trousers bespattered with paint, Young resembles an Abstract Expressionist guanoed with his own enamels. Apart from his band, which includes his wife of 30-odd years, Pegi, on the piano, he's surrounded by an array of bizarre miscellanea: a cigar-store Indian, a towering antique pump organ, random marquee letters and numbers in an enigmatic cipher strung from a backstage billboard, and most peculiarly, a bright-red telephone in the middle of the drum kit.
The coloured lights and an enormous fan action-paint his hair while he churns out seismic riffs and thunderheads of feedback from his Les Paul and coos plaintive acoustic masterworks such as "Needle and the Damage Done" in that odd, immediately recognisable falsetto (this anti-drug anthem is a crippling riposte to the characteristic boneheadedness of the "Coke, Please!" sign pinned to Primal Scream's amp earlier in the day). He takes to the organ for the astonishingly lovely eco dirge "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)" and ends in stunning fashion, with a cauterising cover of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life", ripping his guitar strings out and banging his axe on the floor like a piece of road equipment before marching off with a rictus of disgust plastered across his face. Jackson Pollock would've approved.
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