The last time Neil Young came to Vienna was six years ago, touring on the back of the Chrome Dreams II album. That show, in the slightly odd surroundings of the Austria Center (which has rarely been used for rock concerts since; maybe they were put off by the fact that the audience nearly broke the floor with their jumping up and down) was a relatively user-friendly affair, with an acoustic set followed by an electric set and a fairly generous helping of Young’s greatest hits. Wednesday night’s concert, on the other hand, was definitely one for the diehards, with extended jams aplenty and an acoustic set that lasted for only two songs – one of which, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, added up to not much more than glorified busking. And yet this was the one that played out in front of a capacity audience in the soulless barn that is the Stadthalle, with its muddy acoustics, concession stands and endless parade of people wandering around the place. All of which goes to show, as if it needed reiterating, that nothing is predictable in the world of Neil Young.
The other big difference between the 2008 and 2014 concerts, of course, was that this time Young had brought his legendary backing band Crazy Horse with him. And while there’s clearly no “right” or “best” way to see Young, given the plethora of styles and configurations at which he excels, there’s no denying the crackle of excitement that greeted his entrance onstage accompanied by rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro, drummer Ralph Molina and substitute bassist Rick Rosas, along with two excellent female backing singers.
With barely a nod to the audience, the evening kicked off with a barnstorming take on “Love and Only Love” from 1990’s seminal Ragged Glory album. Young and Sampedro fell straight into a lengthy dialogue, their guitar licks meshing together in loose but controlled interplay. It was a full four minutes before Young stepped up to the mic, his unique and still haunting voice testifying to the song’s powerful message: “Love and only love will endure/Hate is everything you think it is/Love and only love will break it down/Break it down, break it down.”
On the other hand, if there’s one thing Neil Young has been at pains to communicate in his almost 50-year career, it’s that love is not all you need. The strongest emotion emanating from the stage was not love but anger – and righteous anger at that, borne of an abiding and passionate humanitarian conscience. The singer’s black hat stayed stubbornly on his head for almost the entire evening, but from my vantage point fairly close to the stage (or, if you must, from the video screens on either side), it was clear that his mouth was set in a more or less permanent snarl. It was as though these long (14 cuts in two hours), serpentine songs, their distorted shapes hewn from volume and electricity, were the only possible response to an ongoing crisis of global proportions.
That response was inscribed not only in the more hard-rocking numbers like “Love to Burn” and the inevitable main-set closer “Rockin’ in the Free World”, but also in the more elegiac moments such as “Living with War” and “Cortez the Killer”. “Cortez” in particular was exquisite, with Young drawing out long, achingly tender cadences to frame the song’s narrative of love and sacrifice. When not at the mic Young was most often to be found squaring up to Sampedro, the two men seemingly oblivious to all but the music binding them together, a touching image of two sexagenarians holding fast in the storm.
Given the depth of Young’s back catalogue, there will always be gripes about the setlist, with regrets over omitted songs an inevitable aspect of any post-gig discussion. In my case, the absence of “Like a Hurricane”, “Hey Hey My My”, “Powderfinger” and “Cinnamon Girl” was particularly keenly felt. It was also unfortunate, though perfectly understandable, that Young chose to round off the evening with the bouncy but rather cheesy new song “Who’s Gonna Stand Up And Save The Earth?” But such disappointments count for little when weighed against the urgency and vitality that Neil Young, at 68, still brings to everything he does.