Reviews

Neil Young + Wilco + Everest

Chad Berndtson

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.

Neil Young

Neil Young + Wilco + Everest

City: Worcester, MA
Venue: DCU Center
Date: 2008-12-13

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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