At the O2 Arena, Neil Young and his Crazy Horse backing band – guitarist Frank Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina – stood huddled in a tight knot at the centre of the stage, dwarfed by four huge fake Fender amplifiers and a giant model of a microphone stand. They looked Lilliputian, but there was nothing dwarfish about the noise they made.
Kicking off with the 1990 track “Love and Only Love”, Young played a series of fiercely distorted solos, lurching back and forth opposite Sampedro like one marking out shared territory. Meanwhile the latter added a rumbling, fuzzy backdrop, overlaid by Talbot and Molina’s bulldozing rhythms. It was a thick impasto of sound, roughly daubed over the arena as though it were a vast canvas. True to Young’s obsession with acoustics, his vocals were perfectly mixed amid the six-string maelstrom.
He and Crazy Horse have a new album out, Psychedelic Pill, a series of long rambling jams in the high hippy style. The set sagged with the appearance of one of those jams, “Walk Like a Giant”, a plodding eco-lament about the corruption of 1960s idealism. But the song, which lasted about 30 minutes, ended remarkably, collapsing into a wild morass of dissonance as Young coaxed feedback from his guitar, and scraps of paper and plastic bags were blown on stage – a startling act of agitpop provocation.
An unreleased song, “Hole in the Sky”, continued the green theme in a gentler and more hopeful tone. Then came a magnificent passage of solo songs, including a tender “Comes a Time” and a vigorous cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Another unreleased number, “Singer without a Song”, was an aching piano ballad about being lost, illustrated, in an enjoyably eccentric piece of theatre, by a young woman mooching about the stage with a guitar case.
The volume went back up with the return of Crazy Horse, songs alternating between fiery old favourites such as “Cinnamon Girl” and indulgences like “Fuckin’ Up”, a drawn-out piece of stoned whimsy, bizarrely anomalous in the ultra-sanitised O2 Arena.
“A lot of times tonight we frankly sucked,” Young said at the end. The withering assessment had the happy side-effect of inducing him to play an extended encore, ending with the bittersweet 1969 flashback “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”. But his self-criticism was too severe. The show had an uneven but grand logic that only Neil Young could have devised.