Thursday 22 August 2019

Neil Young at Nowlan Park: an honour to sit in the sun and witness keeper of the flame

Neil Young performing earlier this summer. Photo: Isabel Infantes/PA Wire
Neil Young performing earlier this summer. Photo: Isabel Infantes/PA Wire
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

"I'VE never played in daylight before,” Neil Young joked at his Hyde Park show in London on Friday night, allegedly putting on some grunge-resistant sunscreen.

He probably didn't think he would be playing in Kilkenny two nights later on one of the hottest evenings of the year.  (I imagined his wife Daryl Hannah possibly advised him to pack the trusty flannel shirts for the dreary Irish weather and it was a shock when he realised he didn't need them.)

Dressed in all black, rounded off by a black hat, Neil started with the hard-edged rumble in a pre-Columbian America jungle of Like An Inca, from his 1992 album Trans. The tribal drums had the crowd on dancing along as Neil sang:

'Who put the bomb

on the sacred altar?

Why should we die

if it comes our way?

Why should we care

about a little button

Being pushed by someone

we don't even know?'

That was some opening start to a show. (Was Neil thinking: 'Follow that, Bob'?) When the sun is shining like this, and the man in black is moving about the stage like an ageless — he is 73 — king of another age, and the music is this damn good, anything seems possible.

Backed by his band Promise of the Real (among them, Willie Nelson’s son Lukas), he is straight into the loud-as-hell Mansion On The Hill from the Neil  Young and Crazy Horse 1990 album Ragged Glory. Neil gives the crowd in  Kilkenny plenty to ponder as he sings: "Well, I saw an old man walking in my place/And he looked at me, it could have been my face." You start to worry that you are turning into some old hippy that punk came into being to kill when I — along  with 50,000 others - find myself singing along to the next song: Over And Over from the aforesaid Ragged Glory.

All together now (the sun is out, so don't be shy),

'At night when the sky is clear

and the moon is shining down

My heart goes running back to you

I love the way

you open up and let me in

So I go running back to you,

Over and over again.'

Later, on Love To Burn (from Ragged Glory, natch) he was bringing us on a walk "late one night in the valley of hearts." It is relentlessly heavy from Young and his band;' I'd say Metallica would have to go some way to be as loud and intense as the Canadian troubadour and his band. 

After that, it was into the heavy metal guitar blitzkrieg of Throw Your Hatred Down from the 1995 album Mirror Ball. "Throw your weapons down!" Neil implores. "Throw your hatred down!" The frenzied feedback on Neil's guitar solo could be heard for miles across the county. He practically spoke the words:  "Here in the conscious world

We place our theories down

Why man must bring us

to our knees

Before he sees the weakness

of his sinful plan

The power in his hand

Will never touch a friend."

This wasn't Westlife. This was 7.12pm in Kilkenny and Neil Young was raging against the machine.

To match the intensity of what they were playing perhaps, I don't think Neil said as much as a word to the crowd all night apart from a "thank you folks." . 

Switching to acoustic guitar and harmonica, he played From Hank To Hendrix from his 1992 album Harvest Moon. The biggest cheer of the evening was reserved for Heart Of Gold from his 1972 mellow masterpiece Harvest.

This he followed with the sweet and low beauty of Human Highway ("How could people get so unkind?" Neil sings) from 1978's Comes A Time album and then with the eternally poignancy of Old Man, another Harvest classic drew another of the biggest cheers of the night too. In the heat of the sunshine, the crowd sang along with Neil, not least on the timeless chorus:  'Old man, take a look at my life

I'm a lot like you

I need someone to love me

The whole day through.'

After this, Neil did the strangest of things he spoke to us. "How you doing out there? How are you doing at the back?"

The people at the back, and the people in the next county, could hear the next song Fucking Up, which saw Neil and his band ditch the acoustic geetars and harmonicas for some eardrum-denting sonic assault on the senses from Ragged Glory.

"Why do I keep fuckin' up?

Keep fuckin' up!

Keep fuckin' up!

Keep fuckin' up!" Neil sang like a particularly demented teenager in a strop with the world. Before we could catch our breath, he took it down a notch or two with Cortez The Killer from the 1975 album Zuma. Next up was Piece Of Crap from 1994's Sleeps With Angels and then "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) from Rust Never Sleeps in 1979. The reaction from the crowd was so loud and overwhelming that you could imagine the ghost of John Lennon would have enjoyed this version. (The ex-Beatle moaned in an interview with Playboy in 1980 about the song's lyrics  — 'It's better to burn out than it is to rust'. "I hate it," said Lennon. " It's better to fade awa  like an old soldier than to burn out. If he was talking about burning out like Sid Vicious, forget it. I don't appreciate the worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean or dead John Wayne. It's the same thing. Making Sid Vicious a hero, Jim Morrison—it's garbage to me. I worship the people who survive—Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo."

Be that as it may, the next biggest reaction of the night was Keep On Rockin' In The Free World from 1989's Freedom album, which would have blown the roof of Nowlan Park had Nowlan Park an actual roof. The chorus had everybody singing their hearts out along with the man in black.

This was some gig alright. It was an honour to be sitting in the sun witnessing a keeper of the flame like Young at his best  —  and knowing that there was another keeper of the flame from Hibbing waiting in the wings to come on after...

Kilkenny, consider yourself blessed.  And maybe Bob watching from the wings thought Young had put a bomb on the sacred altar?

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