Neil Young's final triumph? Rocking hard enough and with high enough drama to make one of the premier live bands of the decade sound like a lightweight opening act.
I had at least two rock 'n' roll frissons watching Neil Young perform in Worcester. You know the feeling: That A-1 moment where the excitement of the live concert, the noise of the crowd, the intensity of the music, the ferocity of the guitars, the crackling of the drums, the smell of the beer, and the acknowledgment of all these things as ephemera collide. Neil Young wanted it to be so. The jerks of his arms, the sneer on his face, and the stomps of his feet suggested as much. The first one came two songs in: A particularly harrowing version of "Hey Hey, My My" with a surging drum undercurrent from Chad Cromwell, a jangle in everybody's ear, and Young snarling into the microphone, spitting out one line as "better to burn out, than f-f-f-fade away" as if it were "My Generation" he was singing, not one of his own legendary songs. The second came more than two hours later: An odd, yet excitingly deconstructionist reading of the Beatles’ "A Day in the Life", in which Young, who'd already been bathing the song in feedback and chaos for a good two minutes by the time it was time for a finale, started ripping strings off of Old Black, his 1953 Gibson Les Paul of certain legend, to ramp up the apocalyptic effects. Those were two moments -- and there were probably more -- that took me out of body, as the saying goes, and made me ignore the few wishful thinking rarities I wasn't going to hear from Young's band, made me forget about the few forgettable new songs he had tucked into the galvanizing, hits-laden set, made me forget, hell, about electric cars, and biofuel, and jaded music criticism, and the frozen Northeast, and Wilco, and expensive beer and… everything. Why you go to rock concerts, in other words -- those moments. Young's 2008 road band is a lean and versatile unit, protean even. Cromwell and bassist Rick Rosas were as spare on quieter, acoustic material as they were gale-force for the electric Neil Young warhorses -- "Cortez the Killer", "Cowgirl in the Sand", and a perfunctory "Rockin' in the Free World" among them. Young's wife Pegi added tender backing vocals and twinkling keyboards, and utility man Anthony Crawford was all over the stage -- singing, playing guitar, adding whatever what was needed, when it was needed. And what more can be said of Ben Keith? He's looking his age, but to hear him paw that pedal steel and curve it's syrupy strains around Young's plaintive lyrics was heavenly. The whole show was, even in its imperfections. What were those, you ask? Well, the big guy has too many musical personalities to fit into one concert, even one as panoramic as this. To see him try in 2 hours, 15 minutes was loads of fun, but the acoustic segments, however hearty -- "Heart of Gold" remains lovely and aching every time -- changed the trajectory and muddled the momentum. And plenty of Young's new material has legs, but the caustic boogie of "Cough Up the Bucks" (a working title for the song's punchy refrain) and the enviro-friendly "Fuel Line" were as much patience-tester as they were set place holders -- bridges to the epic "Cowgirl" everyone knew was coming, and hardly as emotionally devastating as "The Needle and the Damage Done", which Young performed solo at the front of the stage. Young's final triumph? Rocking hard enough and with high enough drama to make one of the premier live bands of the decade sound like a lightweight opening act. And that's no fault of Wilco's; Tweedy, Cline, and the rest of the Chicago six-some were more or less on their game, and crammed a lot into a brisk hour, from "Via Chicago" and "Jesus Etc." to coursing turns through "Hate It Here", "Walken", and "I'm The Man Who Loves You" to close things out. But so titillating were Young's set's strongest moments that even when Cline and Wilco's crack rhythm section pushed selections like "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and "Hate It Here" to typically fuzzed-out, live wire conclusions -- Crazy Horse-style, it has to be said -- they felt merely playful and jammy, nowhere near the terror of that ominous intro to "Cortez the Killer" or the vicious guitars of "Powderfinger" or the cobweb-clearing stomp of "Cinnamon Girl". The early act, Everest, garnered plenty of late 2008 press on the basis of their signing to Young's label, Vapor Records, and the prestige of being picked by Young to join up for the whole tour. Their album, Ghost Notes, is a grower -- what first comes off as a sun-baked, unremarkable amalgam of the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, and Buffalo Springfield over time reveals fewer easy reference points and greater nuance. As the first opener in a long night of music with a legend at the top and legends-in-the-making in the middle, Everest must be a patient band, hawking their wares for variously indifferent and low-capacity crowds more interested in another $8 Bud. A credit, then, that they played with earnest passion and crafted a short set that played to their strengths -- the opening act analogue to what in sales is known as a good 30-second pitch. Club dates are in the offing for next year, their management advised me, and here's hoping they translate a buzz-fueled 2008 into a tractionable 2009.