Neil Young News
Sunday May 4, 2003
Congress Centrum CCH1, Hamburg
In one part of this South Bank-style complex, the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry is holding a conference on understanding the complexity of environmental issues. Shell, Unilever and Huntingdon Life Sciences are here.
In the evening, in another part of the building, a man in blue jeans is screeching into a megaphone, yelling that 'corporate chemicals are killing the land' and explaining that we should all be saving the Alaskan wolf. That'll be Neil Young, then, offering a rather different take on environmental issues.
It might have pleased some of Hamburg's old lefties, but they announced a boycott of the show due to high ticket prices - more than £70 - and, this being a very old leftie kind of city, there are some empty seats. Contradictions all round then, in the best Neil Young tradition.
This is his first European solo tour since 1989. After an unexplained delay, a PA announcement says he will be on in six to eight minutes. A slew of people heads towards the bar and, barely two minutes later, Young strolls on. The unpredictable nature of the evening is set.
He could amble through a greatest-hits set but he launches into a song cycle of unreleased material that comes across as a mix, as my well-read Welsh companion for the night notes, of Under Milk Wood and one of Lou Reed's thematic albums ( Magic and Loss ). The toxicologists' flipcharts were probably less baffling, but not half as entertaining.
Surrounded by acoustic guitars and three pianos, lit by candles the simplest of light shows, Young gives us 10 songs from the concept album Greendale, each introduced by lengthy and bizarre narratives. Like Dylan Thomas's Llareggub, Greendale is a fictional coastal town (in northern California) but its inhabitants don't seem to have indulged in all the sins Thomas visits on his creations.
Indeed, the three generations of the Green family, the principal characters, seem quite wholesome until one of them kills a policeman in a drugs bust. (For someone so keen on peace and love, Young has lots of shootings in his songs.) The thrust of the tale is about how the killing and the media reaction to it bend the community and the Greens' lives out of shape.
If there's a hero, it's the daughter, Sun, (well, I found it funny) who heads off to be an eco-activist in Alaska (this is where the megaphone and the wolf come in). What it all means, on one hearing, is impossible to say.
The songs have a country blues base, minor characters in one become the linchpins of another - and the devil keeps on popping up in the oddest details (we're talking about the guy with horns, not metaphor).
There's a line drawing of Greendale on Young's website; you get the feeling he not only inhabits the characters, but knows where every set of traffic lights is. Maybe it's just an extension of his massive toy-train layout, an entire town he can control.
Each song is untitled (which doesn't make this job any easier) but Young, in the role of narrator, is, in sports terms, definitely in the zone. No one ever sat less still. Every part of his body is moving - knees wobbling, feet tapping, upper body swaying, head rolling as he grapples with his harmonica.
While the songs are new, they sound timeless - and quote liberally from the past. Back on 'Borrowed Tune' in 1973, Young sang: 'I'm singing this borrowed tune/ I took from the Rolling Stones' to the tune of 'Lady Jane'.
Here, there are overt references to Dylan. The opener, which might be called 'Love and Affection' and extols smalltown life as the world 'fights religious wars', rolls along with a guitar flourish like the one that links the verses in Dylan's narrative masterpiece 'Tangled up in Blue' and there's a later, lyrical nod ('You're invisible/ you've got too many secrets - Bob Dylan said that. Or something like that').
Is there are a reason for this? Does Young want us tangled up in Greendale? When Jed, the cop killer, is in jail hoping for a visit from Sun, Young coaxes out a guitar line from the Stones' 'Waiting on a Friend'.
The finest of the new songs is a spellbinder that begins in a hoarsely whispered litany of desperation, with Young thumping a loose bottom string to provide a droning background rhythm, and ends with the hopeful refrain: 'Some day, you'll find everything you're looking for.' It might make more sense if you know that this is about a Vietnam vet who paints psychedelic pictures that are rejected by the Greendale art gallery but who gets lucky when he paints a portrait of the devil with 'Alaska' written on it. Then again...
Young sucks his audience into this fully formed fictional world, which is due to appear as an album and a film next month. (His track record with movies is a little shaky. When asked what the rather abstractly plotted 1972 movie Journey Through the Past was about, his collaborator Larry Johnson replied: 'About 90 minutes'.)
Of course, Young could rerecord the thing with a samba band and issue it as a set of shellac 78s. Whatever form the Greendale project finally takes, nothing will take the shine off this invincible performance.
After a break, Young returns for an oldies set that is unstructured and, again, unpredictable. He rummages through a sheaf of papers in a box, seems to find the right song, harrumphs, tries out a few chords, then discards it. The ones that make the cut seem to echo the concerns of Greendale - 'After the Goldrush' (with its environmental theme), 'Old Man' (family). There's a barnstorming 'Cortez the Killer', on which his 12-string playing is outstanding: he sounds like an entire band on his own. The desolate title track from On the Beach is dusted down for only the second time in the past 25 years - and the equally ancient 'Campaigner' with that strangest of lines: 'Even Richard Nixon has got soul' is a further surprise.
One thing, though: there's no need for him to spend so much time describing vans with hoods on the roof so that people can use them as travelling homes. Most Germans are familiar with Volkswagen Campers.
· Neil Young plays Dublin Vicar Street 11-13 May, London Hammersmith Apollo 17-19 May and Manchester Apollo on 20 May
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