EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Neil Young & Crazy Horse played a lot of feedback heavy electric tunes. This annoyed members of the audience who were hoping for non-stop acoustic Neil action, but it pleased more forward thinking members of the audience. Towards the end of the concert a man sitting a bit away from me did something funny.
I went to see Neil Young & Crazy Horse playing in the open-air bit of the RDS, one of the few Dublin venues I had not previously been to. I went with some foreboding - the RDS has a reputation for dreadful sound, and I would also have to go on my own, with all the risks of terrifying social alienation that involves. But I resolved to give it a go anyway, partly driven by a listen or two to the likes of Rust Never Sleeps.
I missed the first act on the bill, some local act who would have played to a near empty arena after the gates opened. I did catch some of Los Lobos, who were playing as I arrived and acclimatised myself to sitting up in the stands and reflecting on how far away the stage was. So I found their set slightly alienating.
Initially they seemed to be not that great, serving up what seemed like an unexciting stew of old school rock 'n' roll of a kind you can hear from any rock standards covers outfit. But as their set progressed I liked them more. Maybe I was just overcoming that stadium rock alienation, but their playing some Tex-Mex numbers finally brought forth their unique selling point. They also played a Johnny Thunders cover and finished with a storming version of 'La Bamba', dealing with the one-famous-song problem by basically singing the lyrics to an entirely different tune, in this case 'Like a Rolling Stone'. The latter part of their set also featured a red-haired woman in a red dress and boots dancing below on the pitch, more or less alone. This will be one of the abiding visual memories of the event for me.
After that I got talking to another person attending on his own who was stuck in beside me in Billy No Mates corner (the event had reserved seating). I initially thought he was a bit odd (no sane man goes to a stadium concert alone), but then discovered him to be an interesting enough character, someone who liked music a lot, albeit music very different to what I go for myself. I tend to think of stadium rock attendees as being people who go to one or two gigs a year, but he seemed to go to loads and would travel to catch favourite bands who were not playing Ireland. And he had basically come to see Neil Young & Crazy Horse on spec, not really knowing their music that well but wanting to cross a legend off the list.
The Waterboys were the main draw for my neighbour, being one of his favourite bands, and they were on next. I was not excited about seeing them but I liked them a lot more than I expected to. They had an impressive stage presence and appeared to have successfully integrated traddy elements into a big rock sound, with Steve Wickham's fiddle taking the place of lead guitar in several of the songs. And they also reminded me of how many catchy tunes they have - aside from bunjo anthem 'Whole of the Moon', there were such toe-tapper sing-a-longers as 'Fisherman's Blues', 'A Girl Called Johnny' and 'Don't Bang the Drum'. They also had a few songs that saw Yeats poems set to new bluesy music, which I found surprisingly un-embarrassing.
All in all I was impressed by the Waterboys and found myself (gasp) contemplating the vague possibility of listening to them on record.
And then Neil Young & Crazy Horse. For the benefit of people who live under a stone, Neil Young is a Canadian musician who sings and plays guitar, and Crazy Horse are his sometime collaborators, associated with Young's more hard rockin' musical efforts. When they all came onstage I was so far away that it took some time to work out which of the people onstage was Mr Young (it was the guy in black). And from the word go, it was clear that this would be would be be a no-frills show. I had already seen that there would be no big screens, but there was also no big light show (perhaps because it was still bright when they started). It was just some old guys on stage, rocking hard.
They opened with something from Ragged Glory, from the get-go opting for a rough and distorted sound (helped by the sonic problems for which the RDS is famous). I somewhat think of Ragged Glory as being only alright rather than awesome, but the tracks from it worked well live, being very suitable for a Crazy Horse chugathon.
Over the whole concert they did not play that many individual songs, with each tune being stretched out by soloing and/or false-endings that led into prolonged feedbacky messing. Some people liked this, some people did not. I loved it, obv., and the two mad for it older women in front of me seemed to be enjoying the rocking out, but quite a few attendees felt the lack of the nicey acoustic songs from the likes of Harvest.
Things became seriously hairy with a song the Internet suggests is the currently unrecorded 'Hole in the Sky'. As the song came to what would normally have been its end, the band launched into what became some ten minutes of feedback and tuneless guitar noise. I thought this was the best thing ever, but quite a few members of the audience actively hated it, with some slow hand claps and the like coming from further up the stands behind me. Other people were just a bit bored - you could hear the kind of crowd noise you get when people lose interest and start talking to their mates.
What this all reminded me of was something like the first time My Bloody Valentine did The Holocaust, before it was something expected, when it was still something that would have audiences reacting with confusion and awkwardness. Both then, and with Neil Young & Crazy Horse, there must have been people thinking "Holy Jesus, are they going to keep doing this for the rest of the night?" (to which I would have said, "Bring it on!").
Eventually that stopped and almost as a concession to the hostiles Young switched into solo acoustic mode, doing one of his own nicey songs and then treating us to a cover of 'Blowin' in the Wind'. The nod to Dylan may have been meant to remind more astute attendees of how Bob had once upset his fans by going electric. Either way it settled the more contrary members of the audience. "Now that's proper Neil Young!" commented a previously disgruntled character sitting near me.
This acoustic interlude provided a perfect opportunity for me to avail of the facilities. On returning, I found that Crazy Horse were back onstage and the concert was electric once more. There was no repeat of the extended messy feedback outro from before the break, but it all remained rather ragged. The disgruntled character mentioned above became disgruntled once more and took to booing at the end of every song, though he was drowned out by others' applause.
One great thing was a performance of 'Fucking Up' from Ragged Glory, which featured this big long bridge where it all went surprisingly funky on us (or as funky as a load of old white rockers can be, you dig?). My sense is that the crowd generally loved it, but the grumpy guy was not having it. As the song ended and people were applauding he booed a bit and then called out to like-minded souls, "Am I missing something? It's not just me, is it?" His wife was embarrassed.
After a storming version of 'Hey Hey, My My' the band went off and then came back for an encore. By now, a lot of the lightweights had left, realising that they were not going to be getting 'Heart of Gold' or 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart'. Mr Grumpy himself got bored with his booing and made his way to the exits as the opening chords of 'Cortez the Killer' started to waft through the stadium… only to suddenly appear back at his seat after the vocals had started.
"It's my favourite song!" he exclaimed.
And that, pretty much, was that. I had a ball, enjoying both the music and the confrontational nature of the performance.
As a treat for anyone who has made it this far, here is a live recording of 'Hey Hey, My My', apparently made on the Ragged Glory tour in 1991; it features the most rock and roll audience reaction shots ever filmed:
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