Neil Percival Young is 68 years old, he is younger than two thirds of Crazy Horse. Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot are both now into their 70s. Traditionally by this point it would be perfectly acceptable for the collaboration to be slowing down, mellowing into a gentle form of semi-retirement. Recent reports suggest they might be meandering towards that point, guitarist Frank Sampedro, the youngest member at a sprightly 65, has hinted that this might be the last tour Crazy Horse and Neil Young do together, citing a recent broken hand, and Neil Young’s own troubling wrist problem; he admits that eventually “you can’t fool time.”
The caveat to any question of Neil Young & Crazy Hose slowing down is provided by the bands 2012 album Psychedelic Pill. At 87 minutes long, and spanning two discs, it was the longest album of Neil Young’s career. Opening track Driftin’ Back was so long that on the vinyl version it has to be split over two sides. If this was the sound of a band approaching the end it was a vital, final death scream of an album, not a gentle drift into the void. The supporting world tour is ambitious, long and all encompassing, it’s possible they’re going out, but they’re certainly doing it in style! Part of this tour saw Neil Young & Crazy Horse playing a headlining set this weekend at Hyde Park as part of the Barclaycard British Summer Time day festivals.
Arriving early in the day in an attempt to take in the vast quantity of high quality support acts, the first of note is Half Moon Run. They are not the first band we see mind, prior to them we take in Battles of Winter, competent indie rock in a tent that somehow manages to recreate the sort of sweaty cess-pit that instantly transports you back to Camden. We last a couple of songs before nearly passing out, we then head to a slightly larger, equally warm tent to take in Leonard Cohen’s backing singers The Webb Sisters, who’s ultra-bland country-folk music is well delivered but once they break into a Boyzone cover, it’s time to consider the merits of watching paint dry, or even worse, time to watch some of Yellow Wire. Yellow Wire are the kind of band you imagine died out years ago, sort of chugging emo music, with far too many guitarists for such a thin sound. The ballads are even worse, they sound like the hideous middle ground of Goo Goo Dolls and Counting Crows. After those three, Half Moon Run could do little wrong, they draw a sizeable crowd to the main stage, even if most of them are just lazily enjoying the sunshine. The band run through a set of tracks largely taken from their debut album, Dark Eyes. There are hints of Bombay Bicycle Club in their synth-laden upgrade on Americana. The vocal harmonies are impressive, if borrowed straight from Fleet Foxes, and in penultimate track Full Circle they possess a song clearly built for such a large stage.
After Half Moon Run, like a large proportion of the audience, we attempt to take in Phosphorescent. It is here the organisation of this Barclaycard British Summer Time event starts to creak, and cracks appear. Whilst putting the second stage in a tent isn’t entirely awful in theory, why make it so ludicrously small? They’re only the second band on and a queue of around 300 people has already formed. We join the back of it and arrive into the tent just in time to almost pass out from the heat and see the band thanking the crowd and walking off stage. Putting together an impressive supporting cast is worthy of praise, making it impossible to see them is not. We decide to stick it out in the blazing inferno that is The Barclaycard Theatre, and luckily the ever-charming Caitlin Rose is well worth sweating off half your body weight for. It’s a sign of the in-humanely hot conditions that even Caitlin, a native of Nashville, Tennessee seems a little flustered by the warmth. She runs through an impressive set of country tracks, largely taken from her most recent album The Stand-In. The quality of her song-writing lifts the tracks well above Nashville parodies, as does her between song patter, “300 sweaty people in a tent’s fine as long as everyone keeps their clothes on” is delivered in a delightful and distinctive Southern drawl. Musically there’s a sparkling variety from the upbeat Waitin’ to lilting ballads like Pink Champagne. Lyrically she’s a delight, as in Waitin’, introduced here as being about “being a bad ass son of a bitch” which see’s her in full on heartbreaker mood singing “true loves always been such a racket, you tried every code but you never can crack it.” She seems to possess a wonderful level of cynicism, missing from so many of her country contemporaries, there’s plenty to suggest she is destined for a far bigger stage in the not to distant future.
The National are almost billed as co-headliners here, and certainly a good whack of the crowd seem to have come to see the Brooklyn based rockers. They take the stage looking the most casual I’ve ever seen them; all brightly coloured t-shirts, dark glasses and sun-tans, and they seem hell-bent on enjoying themselves. Bright sunshine isn’t their most natural setting, and it seems to take them a couple of tracks to get the sound sorted, but when they do they run through an impressive set from across their back catalogue. Stunning visuals accompany the set, and they do seem like a band now entirely comfortable on such a large stage. Indeed they even seem to have control of the weather, as on England, as Matt sings “you must be somewhere in London, you must be loving your life in the rain” the clouds form on cue, giving a gloomier, darker atmosphere to the closing salvo of tracks, and under a blanket of greying sky the band truly hit their stride. Mr November still packs a rage driven punch, and closing track Bloodbuzz Ohio, just seems to get more compelling every time they play it. A superb support slot, and you sense it won’t be long before they’re carrying off crowds this size in their own right.
Attempts to take in Midlake afterwards, are a complete write off, the queues just to get a drink or something to eat now spiralling out of control, let alone fitting into the minute second stage. A shame the organisation here makes taking in all the acts an impossibility, but with Neil Young on the way it’s hard to be too upset.
Neil Young has been making music for 54 years, so expecting any particular track is probably always going to result in disappointment. Even taking that into account, the opening salvo of tracks is pretty obscurest. Taking in a number of tracks from 1990s Ragged Glory, it’s essentially a hard-rock jam session. The playing is impressive, and the band are clearly enjoying themselves, indeed throughout the set it’s hard to escape the fact that this is a band to all essential purposes doing this for their own amusement.
After six, impressively meandering jams, played with stunning intensity, Crazy Horse depart and Neil addresses the crowd “come on you sad bastards stop crying and complaining” before launching into a version of Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Could anyone else get away with so flagrantly ignoring what your audience wants to hear, and make up for it so effortlessly? It’s absolutely stunning, and as he follows it with a cover of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind and Heart Of Gold, suddenly the crowd are so firmly on side, so utterly charmed, by the simple brilliance of his song-writing, they belt out every word along with him, the whole of Hyde Park becoming a delirious massed choir, it’s a true, shivers down the spine moment.
Crazy Horse return to run through a riotous set of career highlights. They blast through Barstool Blues, Psychedelic Pill and Cinammon Girl, with a shocking intensity, they’re utterly brilliant. They end the main set on Rockin’ In The Free World, the crowd love it, and lap it up, but sorry Neil, I still hate Rockin’ In The Free World.
They encore with a brand new track, Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save The Earth, it’s just as soap-box worthy as it sounds, all asking who’s gonna stand up to big oil and the machine, somehow Neil Young as an eco-warrior is so convincing that the fact it sounds like a bad sixth-form end of year show is allowed to slip by, and you can’t help but root for the band who still want to change the world! Any lingering doubts that the band may have lost something along the years are completely blown away by their closing track, a stunning version of Down by the River, that seems to last somewhere close 20 minutes! If it sounds self-indulgent there’s no denying it is, but it’s also absolutely compelling, the pure musicianship on show is a real delight and for all the meandering, when that stunning chorus kicks in, it makes every note worthwhile, it’s a stunning end.
So what to make of it? Neil Young remains as perfectly crotchety, uncompromising and brilliantly unique as ever, it’s no crowd pleasing, greatest hits set, it’s so much more than that. It’s the sound of a band in many ways still firmly in their prime, and still doing exactly what they want to do, and isn’t that better than anyone could possibly have imagined?