I thought how blessed Neil Young was to go toe to toe with mortality, to survive, and to be wise enough to throw his own goodbye party / concert and to film it. May we all be so fortunate.Little did I know that Neil Young would survive his aneurysm survey, and keep right on rocking. And I was fortunate enough to see him as he came through Bridgeport (Webster Arena) last evening.
Now, Neil Young and I go way back. I thing I wore the grooves down on my Life Rust album (remember double albums?). I owned an erratic sampling of his works on album and cassette: his self titled first, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, American Star and Bars, Re*actor, Trans, Landing on Water, Freedom. And when I made the jump to CD, I've picked up a bit over the years: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Rust Never Sleeps, Decade, Life Rust, Sleeps with Angels, Mirror Ball, Ragged Glory. Not canonical by any means, but a good sampling.
And as an angry young rocker, Neil Young was an icon. Needle and the Damage Done was part of the walking D acoustic trilogy (also, Willin' by Lowell George and Friend of the Devil by the Grateful Dead). A guitar, and amp, and the right effects pedal, and one could blast out the riffs to Hey Hey, My My. Every band I've ever played in had some Neil Young in the set list - Powderfinger, Hey Hey My My, Like a Hurricane. Even today, the Guinea Pigs play Cinnamon Girl. Neil Young's music is nothing if not messy, emotional, heartfelt.
Similarly, the intro to Needle and the Damage Done (with the lightning graphics and sound, and the Woodstock "please get off those towers...no rain" recording) was straight out of Live Rust. For someone who often obstinantly refuses to play the greatest hits (the folks behind us were kvetching about previous concerts where he did nothing old or classic), Mr Young is awfully faithful to the past.
And there were Greatest Hits - Mr. Soul, Hey Hey My My, Cinnamon Girl, Powderfinger, Needle and the Damage Done were all woven into newer material. It felt a little polarized - old FM classics or brand new material. Not a lot of middle ground, mining the many albums of material out there.
I was struck by a certain level of goofiness, bordering on surrealism, that infused the concert. The big amps and microphone, and the video monitors (trimmed out to look like 60's TV sets hung in the arena) reminded me of a bunch of kids playing in the basement - Neil and the band (with the exception of the keyboard player) hugged the center of the stage, facing inward towards each other as if avoiding eye contact with the audience. This was their fun time playing, and we got to watch and listen, if we dared.
Their set opened with the National Anthem (dude, you are Canadian, right?) complete with flag unfurled behind the band - serious or making fun? Hard to say. During one song, an old pump organ was rolled out on stage, and when the short organ instrumental rolled around (played by the keyboardist on a more modern instrument) the old pump organ was spotlit, unplayed. At one point, the roadies crumpled papers and bags in front of a fan, blowing across the stage for no real reason other than perhaps the joy of watching things blow across the stage. You get the feeling that maybe back in '75, someone decided to screw with Neil and send stuff blowing across the stage via a cooling fan, and they decided to keep the bit. There was a lot of that going on. Like some weirdly serious, weirdly comic ritual that has evolved over 40 years - nobody knows why they are doing all these things, they made sense once upon a time.
Me at 51 is a far different person than me at 18. I grew tired of the endless guitar riffing, and the prolonged (10 minutes maybe?) of messing around with feedback and sonic blasting. I wanted a little more song and a little less riffing. But, 35 years down the road Neil Young is still rocking it out. He was up there amusing himself in 79, and he's still up there amusing himself today. We can choose to come along.
The second song in was the anthem Powderfinger - and it was like I was scratching a 35 year old itch to hear the song played live, after playing it so often in my own basement rock past. It did not disappoint.
Jonathon Demme has a follow-up film (Journeys) - part of an accidental Trilogy - and I need to see that. 2006's Heart of Gold was amazingly moving. But for now, I'll let the ears ring and the energy settle. Glad I finally got to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse.