A storming three-hour show last night by Neil Young in the unlikely surroundings of the Austria Center. (In fact the sound was better than expected, although the sightlines were predictably poor.)
The first set saw Young deliver a set of lovely solo acoustic songs, switching between guitar and piano (with one song on banjo). I enjoyed watching him wander among his guitars before each song, seemingly trying to decide which of his old friends to hold a conversation with. It’s wonderful the way these songs take the everyday and quotidian and invest them with such mystical, charged significance. And after all these years, his voice is still a thing of beauty. “After the Gold Rush” was just spellbinding. A great shame he didn’t speak at all between songs, though – the fact that he never addressed the audience made the set feel considerably less intimate (insofar as any gig in a conference centre could ever be called intimate) and gave it the air of a formal recital.
For the second part of the evening, though, no talking was required; Young’s electric guitar spoke more eloquently than any words could have done. When “Hey Hey My My” kicked in the hall just erupted, and there was even an announcement from Young at the song’s end (which presumably he had had relayed to him from the side of the stage), to the effect that the venue management were concerned about the resilience of the floor to too much jumping up and down. (The hall is on the first floor of the centre.) The electric storm didn’t subside until almost two hours later. “Powderfinger” was massive, “Cinnamon Girl” wild, but the undoubted highlight was a song I hadn’t heard before, “No Hidden Path”. This monster proceeded for what must have been at least 20 minutes, with Young spitting molten fire from his guitar every second. Just… immense.
It wasn’t until someone pointed it out to me that I noticed that there was a bloke in a cowboy hat onstage, painting on canvas during the whole of the first set. It was some kind of picture of two birds in a field. At the start of each song during the second set, a painting depicting that song was placed on an easel at stage left. The bird painting, evidently finished by then, made its appearance during the song “Winterlong”, which Young dedicated to his late band member Danny Whitten. This primitivist multimedia presentation seemed to reinforce my overriding impression of Young’s music – wholehearted, slightly ramshackle and formidably evocative.