neil young, msg, december ’08

I think a lot about the fact that Neil’s one of those people that I will just go see no matter what I think about their particular recorded output of the moment. That he has put out some, well, albums of dubious quality, and I still went (although I deeply regret passing on going to see Trans at MSG with the stoner guys from Bayside that were in my ethics class at Fordham and had an extra ticket. They did not know what the hell to make of the show the next day).

We were talking at dinner before the first show and referred to one album as the “I almost died” album, and it’s not funny to say that, because in this case, it happens to be true. But the thing with Neil Young is that he is still a cantankerous, obnoxious and overwhelmingly powerful force to be reckoned with. We saw Ray Davies two days before Neil and all I could think was how utterly fragile he seemed – yes, he was always a glorified stick figure and he looks great and has tons of energy but the fragility came through stronger than anything else.

But not Neil.

Neil came on stage with Old Black and blew the fucking doors off of the Garden. He manages to do this all on his own, because there’s no Crazy Horse on this tour (WHY?), no Booker T, no – no backing band of any consequence with the exception of Ben Keith (I’m sorry. “Rick The Bass Player” is just not doing it for me). It didn’t matter.

It was just plain Neil, up there, the usual unusual props (including someone painting behind the drum riser during the show), the cigar store Indian in one corner, a leftover amp from Rust Never Sleeps , the rest of the set dressing meant to invoke a movie set, down to the deliberately dilapidated marquee with scattered letters as a backdrop (was this about the Archives? or something else?). I watched him up there, cranking through multiple epics (Cortez AND Cowgirl AND Powderfinger in one set??), watched him play a full 40 minutes after the MSG union curfew (at $10k a minute that’s not trivial, even with those $250 tickets). He didn’t seem tired. He didn’t seem bored. He didn’t lose intensity for one minute, not even during those horrible, trite new songs (please. they were bad.) – they held your attention because he so clearly meant it, every word, every note.

The first song told the entire story, set the theme for the night: “Love and only love will endure.”

I talk about how Springsteen is about to release a record that will probably not be as bad as “Cough Up The Buck$” but is probably not that far away, and when people raise their eyebrows I point out that Bruce turns 60 in 2009, and his bandmates are dying and getting old and when Max moves to the West Coast with Conan, that spells the end of the E Street Band as we know it (as if Danny Federici’s death didn’t). He wants to keep moving, and I cannot fault him, or any artist in a similar position, from doing that. What are they supposed to do, exactly, sit home on the porch in a rocking chair? Not likely.

I need to make a note about the openers: so he took out Death Cab on one leg and Wilco on the other and then added another baby band (sorry, guys) to THAT. This wasn’t a Rolling Stones kind of strategic invitation to a hip, name band that might help sell a few nosebleed tickets or convince teenagers to be dragged along with their parents, Neil clearly wanted bands who sounded like BANDS. Yeah, and maybe the Wilco or Death Cab fans said, “Oh, okay. Neil Young, cool, let’s go” (well let’s hope they said that – I didn’t see an exodus from the floor after Wilco, and those were about the only seats that you would readily walk out of). It wasn’t a night of “oh god will this end already” it was a night of three solid bands playing rock and roll. In our house, Wilco and Neil Young is seeing two headliners. Having opening bands that are capable of making a statement instead of just marking time is huge.

Now, if he’d just release the goddamn Archives.

Some more to write about these two nights, but I’m breaking them into other posts or it’ll never happen.