Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Concert

Neil Young--"Thrasher (live)" (mp3)

1978.

A full arena. The lights go down. Everyone cheering, expecting the performers to walk onstage. Instead, taped music begins. First, Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star Spangled Banner." Then the cheering gets even louder. Then the Beatles' "A Day In The Life."

The expectations are unbelievable. Whatever follows had better be pretty fucking good.

The stage set consists of giant amplifiers with covers over them and a giant microphone at the front of the stage. Slowly, the cover lifts off of the amplifier on the left; underneath it, the performer stands up, dressed in white, holding an acoustic guitar with a harmonica holder around his neck.

He begins to play "Sugar Mountain," a song his fans know only from bootlegs and from a muddy version from a retrospective album. The acoustic guitar and the vocal are superbly miked and command the entire large arena. He follows it with "I Am A Child," a Buffalo Springfield classic. The acoustic set continues with "Already One," a song from the album he has just released. The other songs no one in the audience has likely ever heard before, and they are stunning. The first, "Thrashers," which builds on the metaphor of human life being like a stalk of wheat waiting to be chopped down by a machine. The second he introduces by saying, "When I get old, I'm gonna get an electric guitar." And with "My, My, Hey, Hey," he begins one of the most distinctive riffs and messages in the history of rock and roll.

The performer, of course, is Neil Young. He is in the midst of pulling off the greatest concert I have ever seen.

We have all seen good concerts, I hope. Maybe exceptional ones. I saw the Who on their final tour with Keith Moon. I saw Led Zeppelin in a baseball stadium in Pittsburgh when they were touring behind Houses of the Holy. I saw Yes, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Bowie put on shows with elaborate sets and light shows. I had my rock and roll spirit reawakened on Springsteen's Darkness tour twice.

But Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps tour stands as the pinnacle in my mind. We can never really fathom how much Neil Young plans, since so much of his music is based on first takes, so many records and cds cobble together songs from different times and places, so we can’t know if he envisioned this particular tour as the most ambitious of his career, but I’d like to think so. Here’s why I think it set the standards for an ultimate concert experience:

1. The right blend of new and old material. And, I would add, the right blend of acoustic and electric. While it may not be the easiest thing to make a list of Young’s “greatest hits,” it is fair to say that he did not play them in 1978. Except for “After The Goldrush.” Instead, he played fan favorites—“When You Dance, I Can Really Love,” “The Loner,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Tonight’s The Night”—as well as fairly recent guitar workouts like “Cortez The Killer” and “Like A Hurricane” that would become concert standards in the years to come. Add to that the “wow” factor of the new material—“Welfare Mothers,” “Sedan Delivery,” and especially the beautiful story song “Powderfinger” (which Skynyrd was to have recorded but for the plane crash), as well as the aforementioned “Thrashers” and “My, My, Hey, Hey”--and we knew that whatever came next was likely to be magical.

2. An assault on the senses. Something always going on. In addition to the aspects of the set mentioned about, the show included taped Woodstock announcements between some of the songs, roadies dressed as Star Wars characters, a giant fan for “Like A Hurricane,” crazy figures who came out and interacted with the band. It all played out like a hallunincatory dream, part personal history, part American history.

3. Surprise. When Young embarked on the Rust Never Sleeps tour, he had just released Comes A Time, a slickly-produced (for him) countryish album of mostly-acoustic songs, so an average concertgoer like me had no reason to suspect that he was going to unleash the second version of Crazy Horse at the peak of their powers. The concert did include two songs from Comes A Time—“Already One” and “Lotta Love” (which was a Top 40 hit for Nicolette Larson). So the sheer force of the rock, the surprise of a second acoustic set, and finally, the final encore featuring the sonic assault of an electric version of “Hey, Hey, My, My” left the crowd in a delighted stupor, not quite sure what had just hit them.

4. Kick-ass performances. The death of original Crazy Horse rhythm guitarist Danny Whitten left a void that Frank Sampedro began to fill around 1974, and while he wasn’t as inventive as Whitten, Sampedro’s guitar (and occasional keyboard) helped create the wall of fuzzed-out noise that earned Young the eventual title “The Godfather of Grunge.” For the fan of great riffs, lead guitar, distortion, acoustic playing, tight drumming, thunderous bass, Crazy Horse circa 1978 was one of rock’s peaks.

Young must have known it was a great tour. Not only did he release it as a film, but he also tried to go back to that well time and again with muted success—the Rusted-Out Garage tour had similar ambition, but weaker material; several tours, including the Greendale tour and Everybody’s Rockin’, tried to spring surprises on the audience, but surprises that were too much or too unpleasant.

If you were lucky enough to have seen this show way back when, then you are probably nodding your head. If you weren’t, then I hope you have had or will have a similar experience.

5 comments:

troutking said...

Great post! Wish I'd been there but I was seven. Definitely would have enjoyed the Jawas though...concert movie just went to the top of my Netflix queue.

Thom Anon said...

There's the rock!

Man, I haven't had a concert-going experience like that in years. Last time maybe was seeing The Drive-By Truckers at Irving Plaza when Isbel was still playing with them (Dirty South Tour.) That was a great night. The band firing on all cylinders, the crowd knowing all the words, throwing proud fists and devil signs.

It's been all downhill since them. Went to a Springsteen show to have a my soul saved. But stadiums are just too dang big sometime. King Khan rocked the first time, but repeated himself the second. Hmmm.

I am in dire need of some Sleepless Rust.

-T

John said...

Envious. I only saw Neil during the Shocking Pinks tour and he was also doing some really bad techno. Not the experience I was hoping for.

Anonymous said...

Great post.
Nodding head.

Just think of the album that Chrome Dreams would have been had it been polished and released. Rust Never Sleeps was incredible so I am not too disappointed.
Among Neil's gifts is his ability to reinvent himself. Yes the Trans and Shocking Pinks stuff fell short, but you can also see this trait in this concert. Ending with My My Hey Hey was his nod to the new musical movement which arrived on the scene not 1 to 2 years prior. Punk was kicking at the malaise that was stadium rock (who, led zep, clapton etc).
Neil has been around forty years, not because he is a historical footnote in rock n roll. It's because he has lived and breathed and walked through rock and roll history.

jed said...

did you see the "Weld" tour after "Ragged Glory?" The props may not have been there, but that was sensory assault on a grand scale in Atlanta in 1991.

great post Bob!!