Neil Young has been one of my all-time favourites, either with our without Crazy Horse, since I first acquired one of his albums back in 1991, when my mate Kris gave me their then-latest album “Ragged Glory” as a belated 21st birthday present (less than two months late, which is positively on time for him). I soon devoured much of his back catalogue, getting my eleventh Neil release by the end of 1992. I now own more than forty CDs of his, including plenty of live releases (some thanks to another mate – hi, Kahnee!), but I’m still missing many of his albums over the years (though mainly those that are poorly rated), which just goes to show how prolific he has been.
So, it was something of a disgrace that I had never managed to see the man in question live, especially as he gigs so much – although this was only his second ever in Liverpool, and first since he played the Empire in 1973! I was due to see him a year ago, but he cancelled a few gigs due to guitarist Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro’s hand injury. Fortunately, another one was soon arranged as I was beginning to worry that I might never get to see him in action, as he is now 68 years old. That leaves probably Leonard Cohen now heading up my list of ‘must see’ artists – and that’s my own fault as he played the Arena back in 2009, a year after I’d moved to the city.
This time, bassist Billy Talbot was missing from the Crazy Horse line-up as he had recently suffered a mild stroke. However, his place was taken by Rick Rosas who has been a long-time Neil Young collaborator.
The odd aspect of this gig was that despite being in the heart of the city, it ended up being the gig I have had to drive the furthest distance to attend! That’s because it actually took place while I was on a family holiday in Yorkshire. Fortunately, my very understanding wife said it was OK for me to go, and I wasn’t going to turn down the chance. Joining me at this gig was Larry, a mate I know through the football, and a veteran of several of his own bands over the years. So we both happily missed the World Cup Final to attend.
The drive to Liverpool was relatively smooth, with the less-than-chatty company of my nephew Owen who had joined us in Yorkshire for a couple of days. It was a nice day, not that there was much cause to hang around outside for long as it was painless to collect the tickets (having called the venue earlier in the week to complain that they hadn’t arrived, only to be told I’d requested venue collection!). Unfortunately, we were too late to catch Ian McNabb’s set. He recorded some of his excellent 1994 “Head Like A Rock” album with Crazy Horse, so had managed to nab the opening slot.
We were in time to catch much of The Last Internationale’s set, stood in the main part of the arena. While I certainly admired their passion and strong political views (including Native American rights, political apathy and economic injustices), they were rather a dull rock band for my tastes, with the lyrics all a little too sub-Jim Morrison (all ‘revolution’ this, ‘fire in my soul’ that). They were heavy enough, partly explained by the fact that their drummer is Brad Wilk, formerly with Rage Against The Machine, and briefly the reformed Black Sabbath. The other two band members are the entertainingly named Delila Paz and Edgey Pires. The highlight for me was their version of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Cod’ine”, but even that didn’t really thrill me.
Then it was time for the main event. There was a small totem pole on stage that Neil Young spent some time playing and chatting to, while he was wearing a t-shirt with “Earth” written on it, while Sampedro had a John Lennon one on in an attempt to please the locals.
They started with a suitably lengthy version of “Love And Only Love”, which is ten minutes long already on the mighty “Ragged Glory”, but was surely considerably longer in this version as multiple guitar licks were traded, with the vocals not starting until at least five minutes in. Next up was “Goin’ Home”, which is from 2002’s “Are You Passionate?” album that I don’t know, so was new to me, and then came a slightly too long version of “Days That Used To Be”. That one is less than four minutes on “Ragged Glory”, but felt rather over-extended in this guise to me.
Neil broke out the harmonica for the sublime “After The Gold Rush” with lovely female backing vocals, the title track of his 1970 solo album, still one of my favourites of his. Then came “Love To Burn”, yet another “Ragged Glory” song, and another excuse for a guitar feast, followed by the rather more ho-hum “Separate Ways” that was due to appear on his unreleased “Homegrown” album from 1975.
The wonderful “Don’t Cry No Tears” off “Zuma” came before Crazy Horse left the stage, with Neil introducing the next song as “one of greatest songs ever written”. No, he wasn’t bigging himself up (like Ian McCulloch, who usually describes “The Killing Moon” as “the greatest song ever written), as it was Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” which generated a mass audience singalong.
Then came Neil’s biggest ever hit, and something of an anomaly in tonight’s set, 1972’s lovely “Heart Of Gold”, a top ten hit in the UK and a US number one.
A second track off 1975’s “Zuma” followed, “Barstool Blues” before we finally got the one and only track off the latest Neil Young & Crazy Horse album, “Psychedelic Pill”, the title track and another great guitar workout. Fists were in the air in the crowd for the anthemic “Rockin’ In The Free World”. Just like “Born In The USA”, the political undertones of this song have been ignored by many who just saw the title and assumed it to be a patriotic, anti-communist song, when it’s really all about the forgotten underclasses in the country.
The set ended with a brand new song “Who’s Gonna Stand Up And Save The Earth?” with its rather simplistic ecologically conscious lyrics (such as “ban fracking now, save the waters and build a life for our sons and daughters”).
The encore was just one, glorious song – all fourteen odd minutes of “Like A Hurricane”, originally from 1977’s “American Stars ‘N Bars”, and yet another guitar frenzy. Although this time, a key feature of the song was the curious bird organ that descended from the roof on wires with Sampedro manhandling it during this song. The song and set clearly came to an end when Neil shredded the strings of his guitar.
During the concert, Neil rarely engaged with the audience, but his caustic wit was on hand when he did – for example when he responded to a shout from the crowd by saying, “don’t tell me your problems, I have enough of my own” or when he described the paying hordes as “a good audience. A little ugly, but a good audience”. He can put on a stunning show without being one inch of a so-called showman.
It was a great gig with just fourteen songs across 130 minutes, but I was slightly disappointed that they did nothing off my all-time favourite Neil album, 1969’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, especially when I discovered that they’d done both “Down By The River” and “Cinnamon Girl” at Hyde Park the day before. Still, that’s a relatively minor gripe, and I am pleased that I finally managed to get to see not just Neil Young, but Crazy Horse to boot.
I went with something that matched the slightly politicised nature of the evening, a dark red Woody Guthrie-inspired t-shirt with the message “this machine kills fascists” on a picture of a guitar. There were a fair few other t-shirts in evidence at this gig, especially various Neil Young ones, but I also spotted both Hawkwind and Radiohead.
One of the photos accompanying this blog wasn’t taken by me. I wonder if you can guess which one…?