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SOLO AND ACOUSTIC
:: Neil Young ::
21 May 2003 / Apollo / Manchester
By Alex Ringsell

Some things never change. Manchester keeps raining, soldiers keep on warring, touts keep touting and Neil Young, thirty years since he was last here, gleefully annoying an audience expecting ‘Harvest’ with a drunken stumble through ‘Tonight’s the Night’, returns to astound, frustrate and delight us once more.

If you hadn’t visited his website or read the reviews of his current tour, you would doubtless be a little shocked and, at £50 a ticket, a little pissed off to find him spending the first two hours of tonight’s show airing his new and as-yet unheard concept album. However, to those who take pleasure in watching Young, still the coolest looking farmer that ever lived, wrestling with his guitar and spinning long, rambling tales around his new songs, it is a delight to behold.

The story of Greendale, its first family, the Greens (Edith, her psychedelic painter and Vietnam vet husband, environmentalist and hackneyed metaphor daughter Sun, cop-killing Cousin Jed, Grandma and Grandpa), the spectral figure of Satan and the drama which plays out around these characters is vividly shaped by Young’s rambling, affectionate, witty banter and the songs themselves. Although the final numbers do make the metaphors clang somewhat (Sun Green meets Earth Brown for example), seeing Young, passionate, playing some of his best work in years and literally screaming and hammering his guitar for the Alaskan wilderness is utterly compelling. Such is the intricacy of the story there is no way to play these new songs in isolation from each other, without demeaning both the narrative and the purposefully constructed, cyclical musical phrases.

The songs are both moving and funny, berating the media and the neglect of the environment with equal fire. The character of Sun acts as vessel for Young’s own anti-war sentiment, which he expresses implicitly through her performance art.

When he returns after the interval to bang out the hits, the themes of the new album, and the show as a whole, become clear. The concern for the environment and Young’s realisation of his own mortality (he obviously empathises with the Grandpa character, adopting the cantankerous, ‘old timer’ voice) gives the show great resonance. Most obviously ‘Old Man’, now imbued with a wry irony, and the show-ending ‘Heart of Gold’, with its ‘You keep me searching and I’m growing old’ fade-out voicing most explicitly Young’s newfound urgency. It is an urgency that also colours his environmental concerns. On ‘After the Goldrush’ he changes the lyrics, singing, with exasperation, ‘Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st Century’, as if struggling to comprehend how a song, written 30 years previous about the threat to our planet, is, unbelievably, far more pertinent today.

This isn’t to say the concert is a sermon on the evils of man. Far from it, the issues, both environmental and mortal, are nothing more than subtexts, left to gestate within the strummed chords and sparse piano. But they are there nonetheless and make the performance all the more powerful. A stripped, 12-string solo through ‘Cortez the Killer’ is the epitome of Neil Young: sloppy, brilliant, sprawling. Just when you wonder where the song has gone, he wrestles it back into view and delivers the killer pay-off. ‘Don’t let it bring you down’ is quiet defiance, a fragile ‘Harvest Moon’ is dedicated to Greendale’s ‘Edith’ while ‘Expecting to Fly’ is breathtaking. Although the second section of the show is significantly shorter and lacks the easy-going banter and freewheeling charm of the first (one must suspect because of the Apollo’s rigid curfew policy bearing down) the quality of the songs, and the manner in which they are delivered, cannot disappoint.

While many artists with such revered status and back-catalogue to draw on would be content to bash out a whole set of cosy nostalgia, Young remains as idiosyncratic and daring as ever. The Greendale cycle, while challenging to digest in one live sitting, also proves Young has rediscovered his passion and muse. Tonight he displayed the guts of a man who refuses to be dictated to by his past, is fully aware of his present and has an urgent hope for his, and our, future.

MMMMM




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