Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Semi-Comfortable Old Rocker

Neil Young has always had a place in my listening life, a place that I have never quite figured out. I kinda like him, kinda don't. Somehow I have accumulated 19 albums of his over the years, because you never know when you'll be in the mood to hear Welfare Mothers. I think my issue with Mr. Young is that he is, with few exceptions, pretty humorless. In other words, for those who think Neil Young is equal to (or better than) Bob Dylan, you're cracked.

So, why did I find myself driving 3 1/2 hours to Worcester, MA, to see Neil Young in concert? Partly it was a birthday present for my son. A bigger attraction was seeing Wilco as the opener. The drive was inspired, woods encrusted within a sheath of ice, some trees peeled like bananas from the weight on their limbs. White birches in particular couldn't handle the strain, bent over into arches forming wickets on a huge croquet course.

Everest led off the festivities with a reasonably enjoyable and predictably short set, followed by Wilco. I went to the show preferring an hour of Neil Young and 2 1/2 hours of Wilco. Not likely, I know, but I wish for it still. There are few better bands than the Chicago troupe, and few better songwriters than Jeff Tweedy.

The main event mirrored my feelings for the performer. There were some real highlights and some real losers. As a friend said, it seemed like the set list was created with the idea that he had to "put some shit songs in." I'm sure they are all gems to Young, but, like any good parent, judgment is clouded with the act of creation. I'll stick to the important points.

Cortez the Killer has always been one of my favorite Neil Young songs. I tend not to enjoy long-winded jam sessions, but this one is different. A dreamy vision of a genocidal madman. Nice touch. Young played beautiful laconic solos for the first 2/3 of the tunes, but when he spit out the first mention of the protagonist - "Cortez, what a killer"- his subsequent solo screamed with rage. A bit later in the show, Young did a trio of blatant, hit you on the head with a hammer, protest songs. Singing about coughing up the bucks, filling up the gas tank and saving mother earth was unaffecting. But the searing indictment of our foreign policy misadventures through the connection to Cortez' Spanish colonialism was hard to miss. And it hurt.

An acoustic version of another fave, Needle and the Damage Done, was also gripping, but brought to mind the problems of stupid audience participation. The song, a gut-wrenching account of losing friends and band members to drug abuse, is greeted with cheers and yells with every reference to junkies and narcotics. Not exactly the proper response. It's like in The Who's Baba O'Riley. It never fails that the audience will sing with pride "teenage wasteland." It's not a compliment, dude.

Now that I've mentioned The Who, another point needs to be made. When I saw Roger Daltrey in 1982 sing "Hope I die before I get old" as Pete Townshend thrashed away behind him, they seemed, at around 40, ancient and embarrassing to my 20 year old eyes. It seemed incongruous, to say the least. Still does. When Young sings in Hey Hey, My My that it's better to burn out than to fade away, all I can say is that if he thinks he is in the former class, the group he seems to admire, then he is using one long fuse.

Around this point in the show, the drugs kicked in for the guy sitting next to me. He stood up and screamed, loudly, "I came for the sugar cookies." Either this was some hipster code that a square like me just doesn't get or it was possibly the single dumbest thing I've ever heard uttered in or out of a concert. Long after this show has been forgotten, that moment will last. There will never be a sugar cookie in the presence of my friends, my son and myself, that will not be greeted with "I came for the sugar cookies." And so, a catchphrase is born.

Bathrooms at Worcester's DCU Center are poorly spaced and not nearly large enough. After a futile early attempt, I figured I'd try again during a slow part of the Young set. Word to the wise. When you go to a show whose audience demographics swing heavily to men over 55, prepare for long lines to the bathroom all night long. Prostate issues clearly abound.

Back to the show. The second half was malignantly boring. The encore was something else. My son and I had read, and seen on YouTube, that Young was performing The Beatles' A Day in the Life. I think we had both forgotten this, but not entirely, because when the first note rang out, we both looked at each other and smiled, mouthing the title. It was a fabulous finale and, like all great endings, redeemed the tedium of the bits that came before it. Kudos to Neil Young on his choice. While most artists save the best songs for the end, it is a truly confident one who picks the best song of the night as his encore, and it's not one of his own. Well-played, sir.

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