Neil Young and Los Lobos @ LG Arena, Birmingham, Tuesday 11th June 2013

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Review and photos by John Bentley

There are probably two categories of Neil Young fan. First, those sensitive singer-songwriter-liking types who dig his work with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, bought the ‘Harvest’ album and appreciate its mellow country-folk songs, like the chart-topping ‘Heart of Gold’. Then there are those enthusiasts of his work with Crazy Horse, his ‘house’ band of over 40 years. However, in reality Young’s output over the years, including collaborations with other artists and solo, has been far more diverse than that simple categorisation suggests. He is appreciated for being a guy who does whatever kinds of music he likes and follows his muse regardless and good luck to him.

Second-guitarist Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro has been quoted as saying that he fears that this could be Neil’s last tour with Crazy Horse. Well, no one knows for sure, probably not even Neil, but given that Young is now 67, and just in case Poncho is right, many of us are anxious to catch his current UK tour with the band.

This version of Crazy Horse produced the seminal ‘Zuma’ in 1975 and tonight there is a definitive rendition of ‘Cortez the Killer’, an unusually constructed song that builds and builds in a long instrumental introduction before the first verse finally kicks in. Undoubtedly the key track from ‘Zuma’ and also one of Young’s greatest musical achievements. Interestingly, it was banned in Franco’s fascist Spain in the 1970s, because it wasn’t favourable to Cortez, the Spanish conquistador.

Stylistically, the guitar playing of Young and Sampedro gradually evolved towards a heavier and harder sound. 1979’s ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ album was heavily influenced by punk rock, most noticeably on the stomping ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’, which made great use of feedback and distortion and is a song that name-checks Johnny Rotten. Yes, you guessed it. We get a really muscular and compelling version of this track towards the end of tonight’s show.

On the current tour, Young has resurrected the set from the ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ concerts which were famously filmed and appeared on album and DVD, featuring oversized speakers, amps and microphone. So, a strange but not unexpected (for an NY concert) beginning, as the band launch into the first song, the rowdy ‘Love to Burn’.

Young’s gigs vary from solo acoustic performances, to appearances with all sorts of bands. Over the years he’s fronted country music bands, the electronic ‘Trans’ band and has used musicians as diverse as Pearl Jam and Booker T. and the M.G.s. However, tonight’s gig is predominantly a heavy electric set with Crazy Horse, with plenty of ‘sonic challenges’ to the audience. It takes as its model the live ‘Weld’ album, which Young recorded as his personal soundtrack to the mayhem of the first and bloody Iraq war in 1991. This may not please the people who came to hear the more gentle tracks from ‘Harvest’, but it’s what Neil is serving up on this tour.

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So what we get is what you’d expect from a classic Crazy Horse performance. There’s plenty of heads down guitar duelling between Young, Sampedro and Talbot. Unfortunately much of the close-up detail is lost on the distant audience in the cavernous edifice that is the LG Arena. Even the two video screens are rather small and don’t really show what’s happening on the darkened stage. There is real love for what they are doing, conveyed in their faces and actions, as they play. Sampedro, in particularly, seems to be glowing with joy throughout. Young looks really fit, enthusiastic and is in good humour. And he’s relatively smartly dressed (for him) in black brimmed hat and jacket.

There are plenty of old favourites played tonight, including ‘Heart Of Gold’ and Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr Soul’. “We did all those songs last night”, says Young, in response to other request calls. Given the size of his back catalogue, personal favourites will inevitably get left off the set list. It’s good that Young also slips in some obscurities. These can be more interesting listening, so it’s very welcome that, second song in, we get the quirky ‘Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze’. Someone calls out, with tongue in cheek, for ‘T-Bone’ (a candidate for Young’s worst ever song) – “We don’t get many requests for that”, retorts Neil, “but thanks for asking!”

9028453078_52ff88ae62_nWe get an interesting interpretation of ‘Fuckin’ Up’, from the ‘Ragged Glory’ album. This does go on a little long, but interest is maintained by a rare solo singing spot by Poncho. He is revealed as having a rather good voice and we get improvised lyrics and an entertaining exchange between him and Neil.

Young also likes to include some new and unreleased material in shows. So tonight we get the unreleased ‘Hole in the Sky’ and ‘Singer without a Song’. The first is a gentle number, with an environmental message, played by the whole band. The second features Neil making his only appearance at a ramshackle piano, for this melancholy song, with the band providing vocal backing, while a young lady (the singer without a song) sadly stalks the stage with a guitar case. It’s difficult to assess the new songs immediately, but the curious can find them on You Tube. These lighter songs do provide a welcome interlude between the lengthy blocks of heavier material. However, I’m not sure why we needed the rather straight cover of Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’, when Young has so many good songs of his own.

Three songs feature from the new ‘Psychedelic Pill’ album. First up is ‘Walk Like a Giant’. This is one of Young’s long electric numbers (and features whistling for probably the first time, in the Neil Young catalogue). It’s a rather sad piece lamenting the failure of Young’s generation to ‘save the world’ and it’s really one of his best new songs. However, like several other songs, on the otherwise excellent new album it’s rather too long. ‘Ramada Inn’ is another strong song from the album, but it’s also a little lengthy and repetitive, although the performance features some really tasty guitar playing.

9026222673_6727b12a52_nMy reservation about the gig tonight is that there were too many unrelieved lengthy instrumental workouts. It would have been good to have included a greater number of songs in the performance and reduced the length of some of those played.

The gig ends with a rousing rendition of ‘Powderfinger’, another absolute classic. The band takes a bow and acknowledges the warm reception of the audience. So, was it a good show? Undoubtedly, yes. A great performance, and very personal for Young and the band.

Finally mention should be made of support band Los Lobos. I’m not really familiar with their material, but they turned in a great live show, with some splendid guitar playing that I’m sure Neil Young himself would approve of.

Setlist:
Love to Burn
Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze
Psychedelic Pill
Walk Like a Giant
Hole in the Sky
Heart of Gold
Blowin’ in the Wind
Singer Without a Song
Ramada Inn
Cinnamon Girl
Fuckin’ Up
Cortez the Killer
Mr. Soul
My My, Hey Hey (Into the Black)

Encore
Powderfinger
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