The Aardvark Speaks : essence, effervescence, obscurity. Established 2002. A weblog by Horst Prillinger. ISSN 1726-5320

February 24, 2008

Neil Young 22-2-08

Neil Young has been around the music world for over 40 years, and he is perhaps the only one of the old dinosaurs who is quite unable to make a fool of himself on stage. I hadn't even heard that he would perform in Vienna until I read in a newspaper that the concert was completely sold out about three weeks ago. I was somewhat disappointed, but when I heard about the excessive ticket prices, I wasn't all that disappointed any longer.

However, when I got the surprise offer to get a free ticket about an hour before the concert started, I didn't say no.

I arrived just in time, but missed most of the opening set, apparently a folk/country inspired performance by Young's wife Pegi. It was pleasant enough, but really the kind of music that you want to listen to in a much, much smaller venue with a considerably smaller audience. The songs had a potential for intimacy, but all of it just evaporated in the cold, bare hall of the Austria Center.

Still, when Neil Young came on stage and started his acoustic set, everything seemed to change. Suddenly it was an unbelievably intimate setting. The main problem here was just that the stage was so far away and I couldn't really see him; the music itself was close and immediate. The opening tracks "From Hank to Hendrix" and "Ambulance Blues" hit the nerve spot-on, the sound was clear and crisp. For some reason, the songs performed on piano didn't work quite as well as those on the acoustic guitar, and the need for a cheesy synth on "A Man Needs a Maid" escapes me. The highlight from this set for me was a particularly touching version of "Mellow My Mind" performed on banjo. The rest of the audience seemed to prefer "Heart of Gold" though. All through the set, Young seemed to be totally absorbed in the music, so much that his body language totally reflected the emotionality of the songs. One perfect hour.

After a 30-minute break, Young returned for the electric set, which was, at least where I was sitting, considerably less enjoyable. The walls of the room seemed to reflect and excessively amplify certain frequencies of the electric guitars, so that from where I was sitting, much of the music was little more than a distorted wail of sound, which even managed to almost completely drown out the drums. Only the snare was audible, the cymbals weren't, and the bass drum only barely, so as much as I wanted to enjoy the set, I really couldn't.

Young seemed in a good mood though and even opened up a bit during the performance, though his body movements on stage during the rock numbers seemed less convincing than during the torn, tortured performance of the first set. Song-wise, while the first set was excellent throughout, the difference between the good stuff and the bad stuff became painfully obvious during the second set, especially when the newer songs incorporated too many recognizable elements from older songs. The three opening songs, "Mr Soul", "Dirty Old Man" and "Spirit Road", came across as rather weak songs, and there was really nothing Young could do to make them interesting. As a result, the audience did not really respond to a good rendering of "Down by the River" either. On the other hand, when the anthemic riff of "Hey hey my my" came on, many jumped from their seats and rushed towards the stage, frenetically jumping up and down, and apparently causing the management concern that the floor might collapse (there was an announcement to that effect). Things cooled down again after that, and many returned to their seats during "Oh Lonesome Me" and "Winterlong". The set was closed with an intense 20-minute treatment of "No Hidden Path", a rare case of an impressive performance saving a not-so-great song.

I left when they started the first encore "Cinnamon Girl" because it was already past midnight and I wanted to catch the last subway train home; it seemed like I had heard the essence of it after a 90-minute electric set. I expect that the audience reaction to "Rockin' in the Free World" must have been the same as to "Hey hey my my" because it's the kind of song the audience seemed to react well to.

Conclusion: Young is in great shape, but unfortunately his songwriting hasn't quite kept up with his performance skills -- the newer songs simply aren't all that great. An added problem is that of the older songs, the largest part of his audience seems to prefer the brainless stompers to the true gems. I felt like an outcast in there, thinking that the best songs were the quietest ones: "Mellow My Mind" and "Ambulance Blues", and all the rest of the acoustic set touched me much more than the electric set, where again the quietest song "Oh Lonesome Me" felt like the most successful performance. Of course the abysmal acoustics may have been to blame because the quieter songs sounded good, whereas the louder ones were just one big blur.

Definitely worth it though, even if I would have had to pay for the ticket.

Posted by Horst on February 24, 2008 11:52 AM to reviews | Tell-a-friend
Mr. Soul said on February 24, 2008 10:46 PM:

Horst said on February 25, 2008 12:10 AM:

What are you trying to tell me? Just because it's in wikipedia doesn't make it a good song. I personally find many of the Buffalo Springfield songs pretty bad. It's a matter of personal taste, there's really nothing I can do about it. Sorry.

pita said on February 25, 2008 12:55 AM:

Excellent, insightful review. I couldn't agree more, except about Mr. Soul and the synth on AMNAM. I really like them both. Pegi should definitely be in small, small venues if anywhere at all.
Neil's voice sounds so good these days. He's really connecting. Sadly, Dirty Old Man and Spirit Road are indeed weak, as is much of the album. I'm not quite decided about No Hidden Path. For sure the live performance enhances it significantly, but I think there may be a pretty good song underneath. In any case, the acoustic Bridge performance of it is the best version I've heard, so mysterious. I believe it's on YouTube.
This tour leaves a distinct appetite for Crazy Horse.

dieter said on March 4, 2008 09:01 AM:

As nothing ist going on here, I might just as well add my two cents:

Yesterday, I attended a Sara Tavares Concert in Vienna. It was in a hall suited for classic orchestral music which was bad since it hushed down the groove quite a bit. It was again not so bad since no smoking was allowed...
There was no supporting band and she played for less than two hours which was definitely little for the money I paid.

And that was the ranting part. Sara started slowly and ended up making the audience sing and dance with her, which was quite a feat considering the settings. As to her music: Being Capeverdian by origin but born in Portugal, she seems to be quite shameless in stealing from all sorts of influences: African music, Capeverdian tradition, Caribbean, Jazz... and the result is simply overthrowing.

Sara means to get some rest after two years and a half of touring, but I surely hope, she will come back with her next album.

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