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Live Report - Neil Young & Crazy Horse, The National

Posted on Monday, 14 July 2014 | No Comments

Don't spook the Barclaycard.

...so there I was right, waiting at one of the gaudy faux-Mexican bars , bereft of context or taste, queuing up while my mate got in a round of £5.50 -a-pop plastic pseudo-pints, looking around at a field where absolutely every imaginable object (and a few unimaginable ones) was branded with the logo of apartheid's favourite bank, with someone trying to film an advert for some new cash-sucking initiative, and I though to myself: gosh, isn't this just what the hippie vibe was about?

Even by the standards of the festival circuit, the Hyde Park events have been hyper-corporate events for a very long time. That said, when Barclaycard took over sponsorship of the event last year, things rocketed up to a whole new level of intrusion. Pretty much the only thing left untouched is the bands themselves, and you imagine that they'd try and get them plastered in advertising given half a chance. It's a schism between music as artistry and cynical exploitation that'd made manifest on site by a decision to barricade the front of the main stage off for 'V.I.P.' customers who've paid over the odds for the dubious priviledge, as opposed to the old-hat tradition of the people who were most enthusiastic claiming the front by just turning up early.

Still, be it by accident or a desire to sell off any remaining tickets and get people in to buy shit, thousands of tickets for this year's Hyde Park concerts (featuring luminaries like Black Sabbath, Tom Jones...oh, and The Wall-era Pink Floyd Arcade Fire as well) were leaked for a more wallet-friendly £2.50, and as such your correspondent - well, hello there - rubbed some pennies together and booked in for Neil Young and The National. The line-up before the two main acts boasted some fine performers - in a less relentlessly anti-art space, Phosphorescent would have been very tempting - but the desire not to spend an entire day in an enclosure that made flesh the wet dream of a uniquely inhuman, money-loving hedge fund manager meant that we restricted our visit to just the evening.
Not to sound too smug about this (well, just a little perhaps), but as a fan of The National from the days of Alligator, there's still something fairly remarkable in the way that they're risen to such prominence that they can now play arenas in America, and despite a slightly shorter set-time are essentially co-headlining the day alongside Neil. Balancing the careful nuance and subtlety on which their material depends with the more broad-strokes approach sometimes required to work a mass audience isn't easy, but as this performance demonstrates, it's something they've become rather adept at. Intriguingly, they've managed to slim their live band down to just two extra performers alongside the main quintet from the larger backing band they brought in tow towards the end of the High Violet tour - while there's less of an effort to convey every single opulence of their studio sound, their live sound has evolved into a more direct sound that still sketches out the meticulous sonic worlds that back up Matt Berninger's surrealist reminiscences. 

Opening up with Trouble Will Find Me's Don't Swallow the Cap, it's an unexpectedly energetic and enthused performance, the band clearly trying to fit in as many songs as they can. Although this does result in a slightly rushed take on This Is the Last Time, elsewhere Bryan Devendorf's drumming powers the band through some sparkling versions of Mistaken for Strangers, Sea of Love and a welcome airing for Alligator single Abel, giving the band enough time to stretch out near the end on a beautiful Slow Show before racing into a closing one-two punch of Mr. November and Terrible Love. As much as the band have come to embrace some of the trappings of the big-league modern rock show, with plenty of retina-burning visuals in the background and at least one song that seems to have been written as a dumbed-down, festival-ready take on the band's sound (High Violet's England, which at least has managed not become an albatross round The National's neck a la Elbow's similar One Day Like This), they've still managed to maintain their enigmatic stoicism as they've ascended the ranks: they may have hardly been abrasive to begin with, but to see such a worthy band succeed whilst fully maintaining their identity is a huge relief. With the crowd happily shouting along to pretty much every lyric, it's self-evident that The National's elevated stature in the indie rock world is more than confirmed by now.

Despite their well-deserved reputation as an instrument of elemental rock 'n' roll power, Neil Young's still aware that his sparring partners in Crazy Horse aren't invulnerable - Don't Spook the Horse has long been the motto. The brief storm just before they emerge on stage proves that it'll take something impressive to shock them even at this vintage. Lumbering into the rolling riffs (do Crazy Horse do any other kind?) of standard set-opener Love and Only Love, Pancho Sampedro is adorned with a t-shit bearing his name and a giant X-rayed middle finger, while Billy Talbot is rooted to the spot, wearing a jacket decorated with cannabis leaves - no imminent of growing old gracefully just yet then. Compared to the arena gigs they played last year, the set has been stripped back to just a Crazy Horse backdrop, with no visuals, props or strange antics with roadies along the way. However, this isn't to say that Neil has finally decided to take the easy route at the age of 68: as the next two hours go on to prove, even when he's playing the hits, he's more than ready to throw some curveballs at the audience.

It's a curiously under-stated start to proceedings after Love and Only Love, with a succession of slower tracks, including an unexpected airing for the unreleased rarity Seperate Ways and Goin' Home from the often-maligned Are You Passionate? Even when he breaks form and plays the hits, with full-band versions of After the Gold Rush and Only Love Will Break Your Heart greeted rapturously by the crowd, it's all just a little too subdued. It makes for an enjoyable but very strange first half of a Crazy Horse show, and the feeling of a slightly under-powered showing isn't helped by a twenty-minute version of Love to Burn (always one of the weaker tracks on the otherwise superb Ragged Glory) that just refuses to end. Even compared to other long-form Crazy Horse jams, this one feels far too elongated, solo after solo arriving as the crowd visibly starts to lag. If this stays in the set for the rest of the summer, be advised that this is the optimum time to go for a drink. Or ten drinks. Or a three-course meal. Or get a start on your tax returns for next year. Or go on that holiday you've always wanted to go on. Don't worry - whenever you make your way back, they'll still be there, churning up the same chords while Neil embarks on the sixth-eighth solo of the night.

The traditional mid-show acoustic break sees things shift up accordingly however. A straight reading of Blowin' in the Wind (which is, inevitably, far closer to Dylan than Dylan is willing to do these days) wins the park back, before a beautiful Heart of Gold shows up - and proves once and for all that, while Dylan is the better lyricist, Neil's by far his melodic superior. When the band come back on, it's straight into a brilliantly energetic rush of rockers - a welcome return for Zuma's Barstool Blues, a great run-through of Psychedelic Pill's title-track, a glorious Cinnamon Girl before a triumphant Rockin' in the Free World, complete with multiple fake-outs. Neil does his best to drive things back into the ditch by airing an enviromentally-themed new track, but its surging punk directness makes it a hit with the crowd, before an extended finale of Down by the River allows the band to fully indulge in their more noodling side, but with the backing of a classic song to keep the audience happy.

If the whole show had the energy of that mesmerising second half, this would have been a rock masterclass - hell, even if he could have just shuffled the set-list a bit better so the first half wasn't so sluggish, this would have been damn near flawless. But as any Neil fan knows, the man doesn't do flawless, and so instead we get something that's alternately inspired and confusing, breathlessly exciting and strangely tedious, a performance full of minor miracles that makes you work hard for them - something far more like the man himself.

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