Monday, December 8th, 2008
Rust Never Sleeps
Neil Young, Wilco and Everest at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto
Frank YangIt’s impossible to fully articulate how huge Neil Young is for me. Besides having been one of my very favourite artists from the very start of my “musical awakening” some 17 years ago, it’s also not an exaggeration to say that if I were to draw a single common thread through all the bands I love or the styles of music they play, it would be him. Some may owe larger debts than others, but whether they dwell in the folkier end of the spectrum or the noisy, one way or another, they’re in the shadow of Neil.
So when the man comes home for a show – yes, he began his career up in Winnipeg but the man’s birth certificate says “Toronto” – it’s going to be a special occasion. And when he does so with one of your very favourite bands in the world as support, as he did this time with Wilco, then the phrase “must-see” just seems woefully inadequate. I had initially gotten tickets just for the first night, but thanks to the folks at Warner Music Canada, was able to take in the second night’s show as well – the first time I’d ever been to more than one show in a multi-night engagement by anyone.
And that’s lucky because otherwise, I’d have missed Everest entirely as photography logistics dictated that I was out of earshot after two songs on night one. I’d spent a little time with the Los Angeles outfit’s debut Ghost Notes and found it a pleasant enough and well-executed bit of country-rock, if somewhat innocuous. They came across more impressively in a live setting, but their more subtle charms were unsurprisingly lost in the largely-empty arena. While touring with and opening for an act like Neil Young (also their label boss…) is no small honour, I suspect they’d make a far stronger impression in a club setting.
Even more than the headliner, I was thankful I was able to see Wilco on both nights, and not just because it kept my streak of seeing every local-area show the band has played since 2001 intact. On the first night, the band’s performance was boilerplate Wilco – they played splendidly, especially considering that Jeff Tweedy was trying to recover from the flu, but it was a slightly-condensed version of the same show I’ve seen them play almost every time they’ve been here in the last few years. It could only be considered disappointing in that very relative sense, though it did offer up one very memorable highlight in “Via Chicago”, whose quiet-loud dynamics seemed to fill every corner of the cavernous venue in a way that I’d never heard or felt the song delivered before.
Night two, however, was an entirely different experience on pretty much every level. For starters, they were a man down with drummer Glenn Kotche having had to fly to New York City to play a previously booked engagement with the Kronos Quartet. Tweedy, obviously feeling much better than the night before, made it into a running joke and blamed his absence on a horrific Zamboni accident, getting cosmetic surgery and having fallen down a well, amongst other excuses. They opened with a drummer-less set, leading off with “Hesitating Beauty”, before inviting a trio of guest drummers – “contest winners”, as Tweedy called them – to back them up. I was told that two of the three were Neil Young and Everest’s drummers, but reports from closer up called that into question and I still don’t know who they actually were – we’ll just call them Donnie, Steve and Ryan. Jeff did. He also said that each drummer was allowed to pick the songs they wanted to play, resulting in a set list radically different from what Wilco usually stuck to. I thought I was giddy hearing them break into “Passenger Side”, not heard in these parts in some seven years, but with a trio of songs from Being There – “Red Eyed and Blue”, “I Got You” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” – I pretty much lost my shit. They closed out with a cover of “I Shall Be Released”, the second Dylan cover of the night (Everest did one as well), and while I would never, ever suggest that they’re a better band without Glenn Kotche, this night proved that when pushed a little out of their comfort zone, they’re absolutely amazing.
I remember walking out of the first of stunning three-night stint at Massey Hall last year and thinking that I was so glad I wasn’t going to either of the next two nights, because the compulsion to compare the experiences would mean that what had seemed like an absolutely perfect show might possibly turn out to be less than that. As it turns out, relentless A-B-ing of the shows isn’t as unavoidable as I’d thought – it’s also possible to just sit back and enjoy it all over again. The Thursday show did run two songs longer, however, with a new song that has been dubbed “Lighting A Candle” and “Old Man”, featuring roadie Larry Cragg on banjo, so quantitatively speaking, night one was superior. And I’d have to say that vocally, Neil seemed to be a bit stronger on Thursday – marginally, but noticeably. Otherwise, the two performances were near identical, set-wise, as they’d been for every show on the tour. Neil’s band – creatively dubbed “The Electric Band” – was largely the same as the one that accompanied him to Massey last year, though Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina was replaced by Chad Cromwell. And unlike those shows, where Neil took advantage of the intimate setting to open things off with a solo acoustic set, these shows started off with all guns firing.
“Love And Only Love” set the table and “Hey Hey, My My” demolished it… and that was just the first two songs. The first third of the show was devoted to classics of the loud, solo-friendly variety including “Cinnamon Girl”, “Cortez The Killer” and possibly my favourite Neil song ever, “Powderfinger”, before shifting to acoustic mode with cuts like “Heart Of Gold”, “Needle And The Damage Done” and “Unknown Legend”. Things plugged back in for a trio of new songs which weren’t bad, per se, but did dampen the momentum somewhat but they finished strong with a searing “Cowgirl In The Sand” and finally “Rockin’ In The Free World”, which is probably cliche for anyone else on the planet to perform but coming from Neil, it’s somehow still potent. The one-song encore was a cover of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life”, the finale for which Neil managed to break almost every string on Old Black on both nights. Epic. I think I’m done worrying if Neil will ever be able to top his last performance. It’s pretty much a given that it will be amazing, and that’s more than enough.
More reviews of Thursday’s show can be found at The Globe & Mail, The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun, The National Post, eye and Exclaim!. Rolling Stone has an interview with Neil where they discuss the state of Toast, the seven-year old Crazy Horse record which is finally being released sometime in the new year, as well as Archives which – surprise, surprise – will no longer be coming out on January 27. Amazon.com is now saying February 24, and are backing that up with not only a price ($323.99) but pictures! It’s real! Last week, Thrasher’s Wheat ran a Q&A with some of the team assembling the archives and Uncut also has some details on what Archives will comprise, whenever it finally does arrive. And if you picked up the just-released live record Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968, you may not know there’s a link to a bonus track hidden on it, only accessible if you view the CD as data on a computer. The track is called “#1 Hit Song”. It’s hilarious. If you want it, head over to Thrasher’s Wheat for directions.
Note that for the photos from the shows, Thursday’s were taken from the photo pit, Friday’s from way up in the 200-level. Obviously the first set are much better – thanks again to Warners for helping me get access to shoot one of my all-time heroes. And oh, I’d mention that I got to go backstage after the Friday night show and got to meet Neil (albeit very briefly), but that’s probably just bragging.
Photos: Neil Young, Wilco, Everest @ The Air Canada Centre – December 4, 2008
Photos: Neil Young, Wilco, Everest @ The Air Canada Centre – December 5, 2008
MySpace: Neil Young