Friday 23 February 2018

Neil Young: Forever Young

Neil Young's storming set at Slane in 1993 showed young pretenders how it was done, recalls rock critic Nick Kelly

My first Slane concert was the summer of 1993. Neil Young, who headlined that day, was enjoying a surge in popularity among a new generation of rock fans.

They had been turned on to the newly christened 'Godfather of Grunge' by Kurt Cobain, who had name-checked him as one of Nirvana's primary influences.

Within a year, Cobain would die by his own hand and send shockwaves around the world. His suicide note would quote a line from Neil Young's song 'Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue)': "It's better to burn out than to fade away", which Kurt appeared to have taken too literally to heart. Neil announced that he would never play this song again -- but he eventually reneged, claiming it back for himself.

Neil said that he had tried to reach out to Kurt when he heard of his near-fatal overdose in the months before his death. Neil later wrote a eulogy, 'Sleeps With Angels', for Kurt and his widow Courtney Love.

However, all of that was still a ways down the road. In the summer of 1993, Kurt was the king of grunge, and Neil was its elder statesman. The 'NME' had even flown over to Neil's Broken Arrow ranch in California to interview him when his grunge-friendly album 'Ragged Glory' came out a few years earlier.

What Kurt saw and liked was partly the messy amped-up sound that Neil made with his long-serving band Crazy Horse, whose penchant for ear-blisteringly loud walls of noise was legendary, and partly the studied slacker attitude that the band gave off -- their uniform of ripped jeans, trainers and unbuttoned check shirts worn over loose-fitting T-shirts was adopted wholesale by the grunge movement.

But, ironically, it was one of Nirvana's great rivals from the Seattle scene, Pearl Jam, who were on the bill with Neil at Slane. Their album 'Ten' had sold millions across the globe, and their signature tune was the anthemic 'Alive'. I remember a sea of fans all clad Pearl Jam T-shirts making their way down the hallowed hill.

Pearl Jam's frontman, Eddie Vedder, joined Neil on stage at the finale of the concert for a terrific 'Rockin' In The Free World'. Neil went on to hire Pearl Jam as his backing band for his album 'Mirror Ball' in 1995, and for the subsequent world tour.

Also on the bill were Van Morrison, whose set that day I confess completely left me cold; The Saw Doctors, who got probably the biggest cheer of the day and certainly the most rousing sing-along during their emigration anthem, 'N17'; Mancunian indie darlings James, whose singer Tim Booth did his trademark maniacal flailing dance routine; and 4 Non Blondes, who were a one-hit wonder with the excruciating 'What's Up'. I'd wager that if the revolution 4 Non Blondes singer Linda Perry sang about ever had come, they'd have been first up against the wall.

Dublin rockers The Blue Angels kicked it all off, but alas they were on so early they played to a largely empty field.

I was still a student at the time and had yet to discover the magic kingdom of guestlists and VIP passes. I remember buying my ticket in HMV on Grafton Street and being impressed that it came embossed with the distinctive logo that graced Young's seminal 'Harvest' album in 1972.

The previous year, 1992, Young recorded a follow-up, 'Harvest Moon', using the same musicians 20 years on. Also, his 'MTV Unplugged' live album, which featured rootsy versions of old classics played on acoustic guitar, harmonica and pedal steel, had just hit the shops.

But anyone who thought that Neil's Slane gig was going to be a sleepy affair would have had a rude awakening at what he and his backing band, Booker T & The MGs, served up.

Me and my friend Kevin stood in awe at the sounds that Neil was getting out of his battered and black Gibson Les Paul -- to this day, I don't think I've seen a more exciting guitar player than Neil Young in mortal combat with his beloved six-string that summer day in 1993.

There's something elemental in the way he wrestles with his axe -- conjuring sublime, off-the-cuff solos that go howling into the ether.

Although he had left Crazy Horse at home this time, Neil's back-up group at Slane were themselves legendary figures in the music industry. Having helped shape the sound of Memphis soul in the 1960s, as the house band for the storied Stax label; Booker T Jones, Donald 'Duck' Dunn and Steve Cropper played on some of the greatest records ever to come out of America -- from Otis Redding's 'Sittin' On The Dock of the Bay' to Sam & Dave's 'Soul Man' -- and had hit pay dirt themselves with their instrumental hit 'Green Onions'.

Cropper had also played guitar on Big Star's lost masterpiece 'Third/Sister Lovers'. The Beatles were reportedly huge fans -- John Lennon fondly called the group, "Book a Table and the Maitre Ds".

Neil had met Booker and the boys in 1992, when they were the house band at Bob Dylan's bash to celebrate 30 years in the music biz in. So you could say that they knew their way around a tune!

For a Neil Young obsessive like me, the set was manna from rock 'n' roll heaven -- the intensity was relentless, there were scorching versions of 'Mr Soul', 'Powderfinger' and, yes, the fateful 'Hey Hey, My My'.

We were able to catch our breath mid-set during a solo interlude, which featured an unforgettable version of 'Like A Hurricane', played on a pump organ, that was light years from the scorched-earth frenzy of the original.

The show didn't sell out, but when you're standing in a field surrounded by tens of thousands of people, numbers count for very little.

Lord Henry Mount Charles's castle looked suitably regal to the right of the stage and the Boyne flowing nearby added to the sense of history.

After the show, we walked out the wrong exit and found ourselves on the road to Navan by mistake. We just about made the bus back to Dublin.

The buzz about Slane back then was palpable. It was a time before Oxegen and Electric Picnic, and before the multiple smaller festivals that dot the cultural calendar these days.

It was my first sight of one of the great icons of rock 'n' roll, and my first taste of the magic of Slane.

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