A shiver runs down the spine as the first notes of Neil Young’s guitar open this double bill of towering musical geniuses (with Bob Dylan to follow). “Well, I saw an old man walkin’ in my place,” are the first words Young sings. The 73-year-old wrote them nearly 30 years ago for the album Ragged Glory. Ninety minutes later, as he faces into the wind, not especially steady-legged, wisps of hair blowing behind him as he plays “Like a Hurricane”, age has been defeated, time itself denied.
He walks on with his band, Promise of the Real, and they proceed to kick it like Crazy Horse. They can be in harmony or make a racket, play quiet or very loud, but they always feel loose, even dirty. Occasionally they meet and face each other in a huddle, Young with his back to the audience, four heads down, jerking in rhythm, like vultures at a kill.
Young’s guitar is never quiet. Sometimes between songs it gives off a subdued radioactive hum, sometimes it won’t let the last song go, sometimes its teeth chatter and it snarls, as if readying to attack. And then suddenly it’s alive again, full of warmth and power, bending and sparkling, improvising, reinventing his songs afresh – from “Winterlong” to “Throw Your Hatred Down”.
His voice? It was never much of a voice to begin with – a thin, plaintive, reedy thing that soughs with melancholy and yearning. But the years have passed over it, leaving it untouched, and when Young sings “Oh-oh Alabama”, it still clutches at your heart. As he plays “From Hank to Hendrix”, tears are smeared over the cheekbones of two women close by me, generations apart.
His set sticks mostly to the Seventies and the Nineties, drawing heavily on Harvest and Ragged Glory (perhaps presaging the promised Ragged Glory 2 of songs from the original sessions) but some of its highlights fall outside those dates, such as “I’ve Been Waiting for You” from his 1968 debut, and a fearsome version of “Rockin’ in the Free World”.
Young eschews “Hey Hey, My My” and “Harvest Moon” for an encore that ends with him embarking briefly on “Roll Another Number (For the Road)”, then stopping. “We’re supposed to be done,” he says, before gunning up the band for a punk thrash finale of “Piece of Crap” from Sleeps with Angels (1994). Contrary as ever, Neil Young is far from done.
Dylan isn’t so much a disappointment as a distant memory. The grizzled man at the piano in a wide-brimmed hat looks like Dylan, but when he plays, he’s almost unrecognisable from the artist who created so many songs of such majesty and wit. All those great love songs… here he sings “Make You Feel My Love” as though he’s forgotten what love is. Somewhere inside the thing he plays that begins “Once upon a time you dressed so fine” is the song that changed the course of music, but I’m damned if I can hear it. The voice isn’t gone, as such, it’s just that there’s no discernible heart in it. Dylan seems emotionally absent, locked inside the “Never Ending Tour” he has been on for more than three decades. He’s 78 now. He should probably stop.
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