I’ve been blessed to see some pretty great concerts this year, as this blog has chronicled. So it’s only fitting that 2008 goes out with a bang, as it did this weekend as Neil Young’s North American tour hit Halifax. It was the rocker’s first visit to town since the mid-90’s, when he played a show with Crazy Horse that is pretty legendary ’round these parts. But this time Young had a card in hand: supporting act Wilco, making their first trip back to Halifax since a spectacular outdoor show two years ago.
The opportunity to see two of my all-time favourite artists on the bill? Like hell I was passing that up.
I arrived at the Metro Centre super-early to get in line, since I had a general admission floor seat; I needed a good spot for photography, after all. This meant that I caught all of opening band Everest’s set. The band was alright, but had a bit of a “samey” feel to them, personally. Bring on the Wilcos…
I’ll say this: Wilco played a very smart show. It wasn’t necessarily my kind of Wilco show, largely lacking in the experimental soundscapes that sprinkle the band’s best records. But it was well suited to filling 50 minutes before Neil Young, in that the songs they chose balanced their melodic strengths with opportunities for Nels Cline to wow the crowd.
Yep, just as he was two years ago, Cline was a showstopper. From a blistering guitar duel with Jeff Tweedy in “Handshake Drugs” to his slide guitar madness in “Jesus Etc,” Cline earned ovation from ovation from the crowd for his riveting use of sound and fury. While four tracks from Sky Blue Sky was a couple too many for me, songs like “Impossible Germany” and “Walken” sound infinitely better live, making one wonder of opportunities lost in the recording studio.
Tweedy didn’t have much to say, other than some polite quips when he horribly bungled the second verse of “California Stars.” Mostly the band let their music do the talking, and gave a pretty damn good testament as to why they’re still one of the best bands in the world today. The highlight: a riveting version of “Via Chicago” that may have surpassed their 2006 take on the song, perfectly blending the song’s folk foundation with its trademark chaotic meltdowns. After the show, those I talked to who were not familiar with Wilco’s work pointed to that song as a standout, with damn good reason.
But just when the crowd was convinced that Nels Cline was undoubtedly the best guitar player in the building, Neil Young proceeded to put on a clinic.
Young has been playing pretty much the same setlist throughout the second half of 2008, with only a couple of adjustments here and there. It’s surprisingly populist, especially for an artist with a reputation of trying his audience. Though Saturday’s show contained nothing from his “ditch” trilogy – a disappointment for those of us who love those records – there was something to satisfy pretty much every Neil Young fan out there. You have the standards like “Heart of Gold” and “Old Men,” the extended jams like “Cortez the Killer” and “Hey Hey My My,” and an interesting smattering of work from his career, from Harvest Moon’s “Unknown Legend” (recently featured in Rachel Getting Married) to Old Ways’ “Get Back to the Country.”
What surprised me, though, was the vigor with which Young attacked every single note of his two-hour set. Is this the same guy who had a brain aneurysm three years ago? You’d never know it. With an energy unbecoming of his 63 years, Young tore into song after song as if it was the last time he’d ever play it. It was like he was trying to force himself to burn out instead of fade away, right in front of our very eyes. Even when he switched his ragged Les Paul for his acoustic, the intensity didn’t leave songs like “Oh Lonesome Me” and “The Needle and the Damage Done.” From the opening blast of “Love and Only Love” to his own distortion-fueled take on the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” Young didn’t miss a beat and left Halifax with a concert to remember.
What a year.
More photos after the break, setlists and YouTube videos of “War on War” and “Hey Hey My My” (and there’s plenty more Neil where that comes from…YouTube counts at least 75 videos under “Neil Young Halifax”).
1.You Are My Face
2. War On War
3. Handshake Drugs
4. Jesus Etc.
5. Impossible Germany
6. Via Chicago
7. California Stars
8. Hate It Here
10. I’m The Man Who Loves You
1. Love And Only Love
2. Hey Hey, My My
3. Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere
5. Spirit Road
6. Cortez The Killer
7. Cinnamon Girl
8. Oh, Lonesome Me
9. Mother Earth
10. The Needle And The Damage Done
11. Unknown Legend
12. Heart Of Gold
13. Old Man
14. Get Back To The Country
15. Just Singing A Song (new song)
16. Sea Change (new song)
17. When Worlds Collide (new song)
18. Cowgirl In The Sand
19. Rockin’ In The Free World
Encore: A Day In The Life
Watch: Wilco – “War on War” (Live in Halifax – video credit to my coworker Bruce)
Watch: Neil Young – “Hey Hey, My My” (Live In Halifax)