Saturday, January 31, 2009

Review: Neil Young, Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, Australia, 28 Jan 2009

Neil Young at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, Australia, 28 Jan 2009

The Sidney Myer Music Bowl is a rather wonderful outdoor venue in the heart of Melbourne's King's Domain. A natural amphitheatre with a large stage and a covered area for those who can afford the expensive seats! For once, I paid the extra to get up close to one of my major musical heroes. I was accompanied by my wife Marjie and my son Samuel, both also Neil Young fans.

But it was just too hot for me to really enjoy this show. I've been in Melbourne for twelve years now, but for a Northern Ireland kid these 40+ days are hard to take, especially when they drag on for too long a period! And after a long hot day and a scorching walk to the venue, you're not exactly in the mood to rock and roll all night long, free world or not.

I regret that we stayed in our seats under the dome as it was indeed like baking in an oven, but the heat was also making us feel so tired that we were reluctant to move back to watch and listen from out in the open air. I now wish we had, judging from other people's comments.

I'm a long-time Neil fan (ever since I heard a track from the new album Zuma in 1975 while listening to the John Peel Show on a little transistor radio underneath my pillow) and his playing has influenced me more than any other guitarist's. Anyone who knows me will attest that I am a huge Neil enthusiast.

And I've only seen him twice before - the last two and a half songs (don't ask!) of a show in Vancouver back in the early 90s and his last appearance here in Melbourne on the Greendale tour, which was really great but not a typical performance.

I'd read very good things about this tour, with the British leg being hailed as his best since the famous Crazy Horse shows of the mid-70s.

So I was primed for this to be the "gig of a lifetime", but it was not to be - which was probably more due to the scorching weather, my fragile physical state (for various reasons), poor sound from where I was sitting, a guy to my left who was not large but somehow took up way more space (mine) than was justified, and a song selection which was not to my taste. So I'm surprised to be writing a less-than-enthusiastic review and I apologise for it, because I think most people there enjoyed it more than I did.

The Greendale show had been at the same venue, and from our vantage point then, much further from the stage, the sound was perfect. Tonight, down near the front, it was rather boxy and unfortunately the drums were mixed way too loud and reverberant like any crappy bar band, which was annoying most of the time, but especially in the ballads, when it was completely ridiculous. I guess the covered part of the venue (50 years old next month) was acoustically designed for classical music, but that's not good for rock'n'roll! And from where I was, Neil's acoustic guitar sounded really bad and that spoiled songs that should have been good, like "The Needle And The Damage Done".

I thought the backing vocals were spot-on and beautiful, especially Neil's wife Pegi's, and the playing was generally sympathetic, but I couldn't really hear the piano at all from where I was. And as for the bass, it was pretty much impossible to clearly identify any particular note, so we just got a general boominess in the lower registers.

Anyway, Neil was full of energy, which amazed me given the extreme heat. He was wearing a white open-necked shirt and Eric Morecambe style khaki Bermuda shorts. His voice was sounding fairly strong despite the acoustics, however at the Greendale show five years ago his voice was astoundingly good, in fact I didn't even know he *could* sing like that!

And despite regretting not moving back, it was good to be close enough to really *see* Neil and observe what he was doing with his guitar.

It was also a treat to see Ben Keith - someone who's played with Neil since those far-off legendary days of the early 70s. The full line-up was Ben Keith (pedal steel, guitar, piano, organ), Rick Rosas (bass), Chad Cromwell (drums), Anthony Crawford and Pegi Young (backing vocals, piano and guitars).

An early song was a fave of mine, "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" with its delectable la-la-las. But for my particular taste there were just too many songs that I find mediocre, with throwaway tunes and sophomoric homespun cod-religious or philosophical lyrics which are probably crowd-pleasing but lack the depth of which he is capable. Many of them had failed to interest me on the original albums and these live performances didn't enhance them any. I noticed that Marjie and Samuel laughed heartily at some of them, and not in a good way!

An exception was "One Of These Days" which I had never liked much but which suddenly rung very true on this occasion, and I guess it's moments like that which make a show worthwhile!

"Four Strong Winds" came across quite well too. The harmonium on "Mother Earth" was nice, but, well, the song is laughable, really! I mean, you'd think you can't go wrong with the tune of "O Waly Waly", but the words... This was one which really had Marjie and Samuel cracking up and who could blame them? (Flame away - we all have our likes and dislikes and I've already stated that Neil is one of my absolute fave artists so I don't feel guilty!)

As others have commented online, "Cortez The Killer" was, well, killer, and the only song of the night where he really let his guitar do what it does so well - sing. (But you know, even though that song is one of the best tracks on my favourite Neil album, the sentiment still really bugs me because he suggests that sacrificing children is OK if you think you're going to get some mystical benefit from it. It doesn't exactly support his case against Cortez. There - I've written a song about that, but now I've said it openly for the first time!)

For me, another highlight of the evening was "Words". That was the only song in which Neil played his white Gretsch and I hate to say this, but it sounded way better than his legendary Les Paul, "Old Black". I think the cleaner, bitier sound helped make up for the muddiness of the PA. I had never really loved this song on Harvest, but tonight the 11/8 time signatures (or whatever they are) sounded perfectly natural and even swinging. Marjie hated it though!

The finale of "A Day In The Life" was brilliant. It's a great song that the Beatles made kinda difficult to cover (although I have a 45rpm record of Wes Montgomery doing it) but it was good to hear it being done so well by Neil. He and his band are as capable of doing cacophonous wig-outs as anyone, as we all know, but they somehow managed to make the orchestral crescendos sound remarkably like the Sgt Pepper version! I was sure I could hear the swirling strings but it was coming out of bass, drums, piano, organ and guitars. For the second crescendo he proceeded to break all the strings on "Old Black" and thrash the pickups with them, at great length and to noisy effect. The middle bit (woke up, fell out of bed) was perhaps a little off, and Nil seemed to be forgetting the words or forgetting to go up to the microphone, but the overall effect was unforgettable.

Pegi had utilised the illuminated vibraphone in a pleasantly Motownish way earlier in the evening, but for the climax of "A Day In The Life" Neil ran up to where it was located at the back of the stage and hit a percussive version of the Beatles' famous piano chord. Not quite as cute as the Rutles' "plonk", but a good way to end.

Review by DC Cardwell (

FULL SET LIST (thanks to

1. Love And Only Love
2. Sea Change
3. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
4. I've Been Waiting For You
5. Spirit Road
6. Cortez The Killer
7. Cinnamon Girl
8. Mother Earth
9. The Needle And The Damage Done
10. Light A Candle
11. Four Strong Winds
12. Unknown Legend
13. One Of These Days
14. Get Back To The Country
15. Words
16. Just Singing A Song
17. Rockin' In The Free World
18. A Day In The Life

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