Posted January 28, 2009


NEIL YOUNG AND HIS ELECTRIC BAND
Big Day Out,
Sydney Olympic Park Sydney Showgrounds
Friday, January 23, 2009

By THE BARMAN

Neil Young is Jackson Pollock with a guitar instead of a brush. His dark, deep lead breaks spiral out over the canvas like trails of paint and splatter all in their wake.

Even when a performance by Neil Young and his band is the light at the end of the tunnel, going to a Big Day Out when you're in your fourth decade takes a bit of doing. It's not so much the physical slog of trudging around for the best part of a day and half the night in usually hot and always humid Sydney summer conditions at a godawful concrete shithole. It's the mental preparation that takes it out of you.

Festivals generally dish up a commercial strain of bands, most of which I couldn't give a tiger's testicle to stand through. The beer's expensive, it takes an hour of standing in line before you can water the horses and festivals attract a small but vocal and dedicated proportion of fucked-up cockheads who'd rather fuck with each other and everyone around them rather than watch or listen to the music. Scensesters of the worst kind.

I wasn't going to this BDO but a free ticket landed so I changed my mind. It was unfortunate that it was at short notice as it meant it had to be a post-work roll-up, missing Died Pretty who were one of only a couple of bands (other than the headliner) that I would have crossed the road to see, but dem's the breaks.

When a second ticket materialised at even shorter notice, my mate Skidmark put his hand up. He's a punk by history but likes a lot of different music. Neil was always OK by many punks. So he's on board, if not ready when I swing by to pick him up. We set out about 5pm from his "poor man's digs on a rich man's street" in one of Sydney's most exclusive eastern suburbs to wrestle with our respective festival demons.

The trip through typically shitty Sydney peak-hour traffic is rendered a little easier by Skidmark knowing a short-cut that bypasses a particularly turgid piece of Parramatta Road. Skid's suggested parking my car at Strathfield and making a short train ride to reach Sydney Showgrounds.

Good plan, but Skid's on edge at I won't let him smoke ciggies in the car. Not being allowed to smoke (on a flight - not in my car) was said to be the reason that Alan Vega baulked at coming out from the USA to Sydney earlier this month, thus ruling Suicide out of the All Tomorrow's Parties bill. I was now seriously worried that a nicotine-deprived Skidmark would do a Vega and take to his audience (me) with a chain, but I'd wisely hidden all sharp implements prior to letting him into the car. You can never be too careful when traveling into the Heart of Darkness.

In my experience (and I've been to a few of them) the Sydney BDO is like Alice going through the looking glass in that nothing is ever as it appears. The external fencing forces patrons on an extended walkathon (just an obvious way of regulating the gate flow at peak periods.) You keep looking for an opening - or a rabbit burrow - to duck into.

There are stark signs outside warning that there are no ATMs inside. Not true - but with no pass-outs allowed, of course it's a good idea to be cashed-up before entering. Skid reckons the organisers are paranoid about ATMs because some crims snuck in under cover of night a few years back and mugged the people delivering one. They're bit less subtle in Sydney these days and usually just blow them out of shopfronts. I'm expecting a sign telling me to abandon all hope upon entering here. Instead, there's some mundane stuff about not even thinking about packing recording devices.

Once inside, it's always a challenge to locate the cattle-pens where anyone who wants to imbibe is forced to produce ID and undergo the mild indignity of having a wristband strapped on. By late afternoon, the Orwellian people issuing the wristbands have long packed up and they're issuing "permission to get pissed" at bars around the festival. Thanks for making that clear; there's 15 minutes of life I'll never get back.

Skidmark doesn't drink (he expended his ration years ago) so he's not going to be in a shout. I consider buying myself a round but gag at the length of the line I need to join to be ritually mugged of large sums of money for relatively small cans of beer. I almost grab a couple of $10 Vodka slurpees from another stand just to take the edge off but realise that not only will it involve a 15-minute queue, but two drinks will last five seconds and go nowhere near making some of the shite on the big stages bearable.

There's a hippie headlining so I briefly consider obtaining something other than tobacco to smoke. But we're trudging around a concrete edifice and there's not a banana tree in sight. Skidmark and I are clearly past the point of no return. We ascend the stairs into the main grandstand where Neil Young will play.

Me and Neil go way back. Not on a personal level but as a musical favourite. He's so cool I can almost forgive him "Greendale." Note that word: Almost. "Rust Never Sleeps" wasn't the first album I owned but it was one of the most important. So was "Tonight's The Night" because it showed you didn't have to play in tune to carry an emotional impact. Tonight I'll be seeing Neil live for the first time in 21 years. Something about previous opportunities being at the soul-less Sydney Entertainment Centre last time kept me away.

Skidmark has also consumed lots of Neil. His abiding memories are of barbecues at his uncle's place on the northern beaches of Sydney where his cousin played "Harvest" on high-rotation. A Man Needs a Maid? A cold drink would be handier right now.

We're inside. Time for Skid's toilet break. I stand outside and wait, watching the assembled masses before we descend onto the playing field. It's like going into Dante's Inferno. It's very hot and smells of suncream. It looks like the Gaza Strip. As far as the eye can see, there are thousands of shirtless, bombed-out teenagers. We're both over-dressed. Shorts with Australian flags over the shoulders are the order of the day.

The shorts I can understand (I threw mine on hours ago) but who buys an Aussie flag so they can wrap it around their neck? Hang it on a flagpole, salute it even. But as an around-the-neck fashion accessory it just doesn't work and infers the wearer is a knob jockey. In a stunning piece of overkill, the BDO banned such displays of jingoism a few years ago. In retrospect, it was probably a brilliant piece of marketing because it outraged the mainstream media in ways you could only dream of, thus ingraining youth's rebellious ownership of its favourite festival. But the edict looks to have worn off. Only one flag-wearing tool tries to pick a fight as I make my way through the sweaty mass of humanity, so I suppose I get off lightly.


Sunset over Dante's Inferno.

One thing the BDO does well is organise a safe crowd environment. It's way safer than catching a peak hour train on a crowded Town Hall Station (but so is BASE jumping with a fat lady's undies as a parachute.) If you want to be up front of the main stage, you need to enter a fenced off pit where numbers are limited by entry turnstiles. Security patrols this gated loony bin with water spray bottles to keep patron core body temperatures low. Looking at some of the poorest of the poor excuses here tonight, it's a pity they couldn't spray them with smart drinks that could be absorbed through the skin by osmosis.

Skidmark and I wander around aimlessly for a few minutes, trying to find the way in. I'm on the verge of saying 'Fuck this' and retiring to a Bar when I remember the queues. Skid's abuse-addled memory kicks in and we both realise that the Pearly Gates are in the middle of the field. We make our way there and enter the Endzone. Only we're not going to be all alone in this one.

The quotient of fucksticks to normals elevates markedly as we settle at the back of the bullpen and forcibly watch an hour of The Living End. There are two stages, side-by-side, and the crowd gravitates from one to the other. If you're quick when the crowd moves, you can rush to the front and stake out a claim on a good position.

This is the same scenario Skid struck two years ago for the Stooges at the BDO. Unlike me, he didn't have a backstage pass. And back then he had to watch The Living End before rushing up front while Franz Ferdinand played the adjoining stage.

If you don't know The Living End (and you might be reading this overseas) they're a three-piece (guitar-vocals, drums and upright bass) playing a pasteurised, white bread brand of music with mild rockabilly and punk touches. One song's a Clash take-off, the next one recalls the White Stripes. One has a Steve Vai intro. Another one bastardizes "Waltzing Matilda".

A third of the way into a one-hour set, three thoughts occur:

Please.

Stop.

Now.

If they were looking to jump on the international New Garage Rock bandwagon like Jet or the Vines, they missed their ticket a while back, but The Living End are still a big deal with the kids in Australia. And 20,000 of them sing every word and pump the air, declaring that no-one tells them what to do. Except The Living End ARE telling them exactly what to do - like The Angels or The Radiators did when I was this age. Yes, I agree with Skidmark that the singer's a good guitar player but the songs are too vapid and the angst too feigned to remotely mean anything to me.

I didn't hate them this much last time but I wasn't watching their whole set. Skid says that this is the fourth or fifth time that he's seen their bracket while waiting for another band, and they're quickly becoming his most-seen local act. You feeling lucky, punk? You'd get less for murder.

The Living End do finally end, thankfully, and we move as fast as we can to centre-stage while the cooler kids move off to watch Arctic Monkeys nextdoor.

When the dust caused by the sudden flurry of zimmer frames and walking sticks settles we're one person back from the front crash barrier and right underneath Neil's vocal mic. It's pretty clear the final line of bodies ahead of us isn't going anywhere, so we settle in and watch roadies break down gear and move a dizzying array of weird and wonderful backline (and props) into place.


Arthur Lee and Love's Red Telephone?

What the red telephone on a stand in front of the drum kit means is beyond me. A tribute to Arthur Lee? I'm sure I read something online about it somewhere but for now it's as mysterious as the National Rifle Associaiton's inability to put Paris Hilton out of her misery.

It must have cost several arms and legs to ship all this vintage gear, especially the pump organ at the back of the stage. The feature lighting is a series of old upright floods positioned by a stage manager checking things off an electronic tablet. The big mystery is who two amps are suspended from the ceiling right above Neil's mic, one ringed by decorative lights. We never find out why or what they were for. There's also a winged keyboard in the roof, similar to the one Neil used on "Like a Hurricane" in the film of "Rust Never Sleeps". It remains dormant all night.

Arctic Monkeys don't sound too bad during the wait. I can almost see them on the big screen at side-of-stage. Their Pommy accents are thicker than mud. and a cover of Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand" probably shaded the version the Bad Seeds did a week before at All Tomorrow's Parties.

The amiable young bloke in front of me is a rusted-on Neil groupie. I get on very good terms with his brown felt hat. Or my nose does. He takes about a hundred digital pictures of the crew setting up - with a focus on veteran guitar tech Larry Cragg who looks like a walrus on vacation in moustache and shorts. There's a blonde woman in her 40s who's pretty excited about seeing Neil in the flesh and she seems pretty cool, even when the security guys pass back some plastic cups of water and one falls on her head.

There's also a stunning young thing in her 20s wearing a thin white dress and clinging to the crash barrier. She turns around to suggest Skid and I might be her bodyguards for the night. I check that Skid hasn't suffered a repetition of his massive mid-90s heart attack that ended in a quadruple bypass and decide that the young chick must have gotten hold of some seriously mind-bending drugs.

It seems timely to consider mortality and how Neil Young nearly met his end when he suffered a brain aneuyrism in a Manhattan hotel room in 2005. Most people don't make it back yet, at 63, he's showing the sort of vitality and energy that puts almost all his contemporaries (and fast followers - with maybe the exception of Iggy) to shame. That "beter to burn out than fade away" line might ring hollow for some people but the fact is that Neil Young is growing old gratefully.

Daylight ends and night descends. A dull chant of "Neil...Neil...Neil..." breaks out. And then...Neil strolls on - 10 minutes late - with his core band of Ben Keith on rhythm guitar, Rick Rosas on bass and Chad Cronwell on drums. Plugs in and we're away - with a majestic, slow burning version of "Love And Only Love." The first time he rips into one of those meandering leads, he's almost drowned out by the hoots of crowd approval.

So it goes most of the night. A hammering, fuzz-delicious "Hey Hey, My My", assumes Godzilla proportions, and Neil stamps out a primal, brutal rhythm, gathering to face his band in a tribal circle.

Neil's put on some condition around the mid-section but is surprisingly spritely and less craggy than the music press would tell you. Tonight, he dresses in a baggy T-shirt, jeans and boots. A bit like the bloke who sells tap washers and hands out the free advice at the local hardware store. Only Neil is an expert on model train sets, green energy cars and...electricity.

Legend has it that he's so attuned to his equipment that when he goes to Europe he can detect a drop in power on the local grid of a couple of watts. The pick-ups in Ol' Black (a vintage Les Paul) are supposedly so sensitive they can clearly attenuate human speech.

My guess is that if you'd pick a song to logically follow "Hey Hey, My My" it probably wouldn't be the good-natured (but very amped-up) "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" - but my predictions and $3 will buy a cup of coffee. It did follow and no-one complained. "Spirit Road" from "Chrome Dreams II" is more contemporary and less well-known but doesn't weigh down the set. "Cortez The Killer", however, is where things become very heavy duty.

If you think guitar excess is a thing of the past, you would have been very alone in this crowd. Cortez not only came dancin' across the water, he dropped a payload and smacked the living shit out of us with the venom of a Spanish waiter who's been told you're not going to tip for his lousy service and he reeks of garlic. "Cinnamon Girl" is almost anti-climactic by comparison before Neil launches into one of those solos and sends sparks showering all over the stage.

It's probably just as well that the band adjourned at this point for Neil to play "Mother Earth" on the pump organ - just to give everyone some respite. I have to say that when I'd seen him before, I sat through the acoustic set at the start of the set knowing that the hard stuff was still to come, but tonight's turning down of the volume was well-placed.

"The Needle And The Damage Down" is just Neil and his acoustic, and it's poignant even if the junkie/setting sun analogy has always been a curious one. "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold" are for the real hippies and summon up lap steel guitar from Ben Keith and some banjo from Larry Cragg. The Walrus gets a rousing cheer when he steps forward. He's had a difficult night when Neil's rig suffering technical difficulties and one of the three organs on-stage also malfunctioning.

Thirty-five-year-old acoustic songs shouldn't work in this place full of seething masses and it's a measure of their strength that they do.

It's not obvious from our vantage point but Mrs Young (Pegi) and a youngish bloke called Anthony Crawford have been contributing backing vocals, bells and percussion from a riser towards the back of the stage, sharing space with a painter (don't ask.). They step forward and receive their intros with the rest of the band, with Crawford strapping on guitar and bumping Keith to keyboards for the last couple of songs. While Keith seems content to add barre chords and stay in Neil's shadows, the newcomer looked to push Shaky more.

"Cowgirl In The Sand" cranks up the volume back to 11 and restores the electric equilibrium. "Just Singing A Song" is the only new tune in the set and if it suffers through unfamiliarity, "Keep On Rocking In The Free World" blazes brightly. It also prompts two young girls to crash their way through to near the front of stage and wave their arms around in the confined space.

One wolf whistles so loud she'd scare shit out of a building site full of brickies. The other seems to want to share some information in the middle of what seems like a seizure, and her arms are swinging around like the extensions on a fairground ride.

Whack! Whack!

A swinging arm hits me in the side of the head like a stiff-arm tackle from a St George front-row forward. She screams.

"Hey-- tell -- Middle East!"

I lean back and yell back.

"What?"

Whack!

"Fucken -- the --- East!!!!"

"What???"

"I WISH HE'D TELL THE FUCKEN MIDDLE EAST!!!!"

Hearing such sanguine political comment in the midst of a guitar maelstrom is almost a relief because it means I don't have to call the St John's Ambulance to treat the girl's seizure or my cranial bruising.

Of course she's blissfully unaware that the song has jack shit to do with suicide bombers and wrestles with urban decay in the US of A.

And Skidmark doesn't give a fuck about me being pummeled. He has both fingers in his ears to block out another 45-second wolf whistle. I'm about to tell the girl with the Middle East peace plan that Skid and I are on duty, guarding the good sort in the white cotton dress, when the teenage dervish and her friend melt back into the crowd.

And the set's over. Neil and his band wave and head off.

We seek an encore and we're granted one. The Beatles' "a Day In The Life". Now while I am not a big fan of the Mop Tops, even in their leery psychedelic days, there's a good case for pulling this one out and giving it the once-over. Ben Keith is behind a now functioning organ, glass of red wine in hand, adding half the unearthly sounds for the climactic passage. The balance, of course, comes from Neil and Ol' Black.

As you probably know, this is a song of two parts that builds and recedes. Tonight, it's pulled apart, its innards are in full view, and are then flung out to dry. The carnage is apparent when Neil rips several strings from his guitar, runs them over the pick-ups for a minute or so and leaves his instrument feeding back against his amp as a finale.

We shuffle out, line-up at a lemonade stall and gush about what we've just seen. As just about everyone else within earshot does. Skidmark rated it one of his best-ever and I'm not arguing.

Now if you think this piece has been the ramblings of an ageing fan complaining about a young kids' festival and lamenting the lack of fingertip luxury, you might be half-right. One of the best moments in tonight's five hours was in that lemonade queue, being asked by a young bloke in the same queue about my BDO experience - and hearing how blown away he and his girl had been by the same headliner.

Rust Never Sleeps but by getting out to gigs like this we can all slow it.

 

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