Frustrating, frequently exhilarating and steadfastly himself, Shakey plies his ragged glory at Manchester Apollo.
Bent almost double, draped head to toe in off-white and with legs rattling uncontrollably, Neil Young has the entire Apollo Theatre exactly where he wants them.
Encircled, like cowboy stagecoaches, by over a dozen acoustic guitars, several thousand jaws are slowly dropping amid the sound of a lazily strummed six-string and wonky mouth organ. His right leg tentatively supports his instrument while his left judders and jerks at right angles as if he’s in the throw of a constant violent seizure.
His faint narration depicts waitresses still crying in the rain for long-gone lovers while Mother Gooses’ kids are forever tremoring under her stifled rage. Six minutes into tonight’s second track and Young looks up to survey the silence. He knows we’re here. No-one’s breathed, let alone moved.
With every bottom string twang his left limb bolts and kicks out, until after near-on 10 minutes, one final falling strum signals the close of a truly mesmerising performance of Ambulance Blues. Manchester is on it’s feet.
It has been some time since the Canadian warhorse has graced our stages, and indeed a longer time yet, as Young acknowledges, that he’s been free to perform in these as-intimate-as-possible venues.
Such a setting is perfect to capture Young in all his intensity and often baffling unpredictability. Stage front, he’s surrounded by a quasi-junkyard setting with huge steel letters glowing at intervals spelling out his name and other words, for which there seems little explanation. A towering Apache Indian carved from wood stands stage left.
Furthering the oddity is an anonymous artist who paints shockingly crude sub-GCSE standard interpretations of his songs – only the titles daubed on the canvas give any indication to their relevance. The artist never looks at Neil or the crowd seemingly lost in his own private world, while Shakey only acknowledges his presence once, standing watching momentarily before shaking his head in wonderment. Or perhaps in resigned disgust such is the quality of his results.
But all this is extraneous to the music on offer. Split into two segments, the first ‘acoustic’ with just Neil playing guitar, harmonica and piano or electric keys.
And after a twenty minute interval for ice-cream and beverages we’re treated to full-on frazzled electrics with backing regulars Ben Keith, Ralph Molina, Rick Rosas and Young’s wife Peggi, who had early entertained with a gentle waltz through her own country-lite.
Such is Young’s wealth of musical treasures spanning his incredible career, it’s little surprise, even for a self-confessed obsessive like myself, it is a struggle to contend with what’s on offer.
After all his latest record, Chrome Dreams II, represents an unearthed trove from 1977 finally assembled with newer tracks and released late last year.
In among popular treasures such as From Hank To Hendrix and a ghostly rendition of A Man Needs A Maid, complete with shrill organ harmonics, there’s four unreleased tracks dating from the mid-70s plus Journey Through The Past from the 72’s soundtrack of the same name. All of which makes for a fascinating, if at times frustrating, listen.
But it’s in the second half of tonight’s show that proceedings reach the spectacular, converting to a black pin-stripped suit that’s been given a Jackson Pollock dashing with acrylics, the band launch into another ancient gem, The Loner, from his eponymous debut before coming full circle with a grizzly rendition of last year’s Dirty Old Man as Young stomps his dusty boots on the Apollo’s boards.
And it’s not just through the power of his music that Young impresses, as a certain section of the natives grow restless, he is quick to shrug off their catcall requests with a cool indifference while quipping about the hurricanes which have been billowing round Britain and his soggy hotel room floor. For a 62-year-old he’d make a pretty decent, if reluctant, stand-up.
Crowd favourites Powderfinger and a ragged, feed-back drenched Hey Hey My My raise the roof but it’s the closing No Hidden Path – stretching on for what seems like days – that truly wins the night with its relentless locked groove.
And if that wasn’t enough to savour he delights further with the battered salvo of Cinnamon Girl and Fuckin Up, before taking to the piano for a spine-tingling Tonight’s The Night which finds Shakey pouring out his soul for his lost brothers Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry.
Fittingly the night ends in bizarre circumstances as a portly Aladdin-type figure rolls out, completely with purple silk pantaloons and brandishing a gong, before the band make a final appearance to blast through instrumental racket The Sultan – a track Young wrote while in his high school band The Squires.
Intermittently the ‘Sultan’ character lays waste to the gong before one final crash signals the end of a truly odd, yet remarkable evening. And that, you suspect, is just the way Young likes it.
2008 European Chrome Dreams Continental Tour
1. From Hank To Hendrix
2. Ambulance Blues
3. Sad Movies (unreleased)
4. A Man Needs A Maid
5. No One Seems To Know (unreleased from Chrome Dreams)
7. Journey Through The Past (soundtrack ’72)
8. Mellow My Mind
9. Love Art Blues (Homegrown 1975 unreleased)
10. Love Is A Rose (Homegrown 1975 unreleased)
11. Old Man
Full band electric:
12. The Loner
13. Dirty Old Man
14. Spirit Road
16. Hey Hey, My My
17. Too Far Gone
18. Oh, Lonesome Me
19. The Believer
20. No Hidden Path
21. Cinnamon Girl
22. Fuckin’ Up
23. Tonight’s The Night
24. The Sultan
Neil Young – guitar, guitjo, harmonica, piano, vocals
Ben Keith – pedal steel, lap steel, guitar, organ, background vocals
Rick Rosas – bass, background vocals
Ralph Molina – drums, background vocals
Pegi Young – background vocals, vibraphone
Anthony Crawford – background vocals, piano
Cary Kemp – gong on The Sultan
Thanks to Bad News Beat for setlist info.
No Hidden Path