Neil Young - Le Grand Rex, Paris - Februay 15, 2008

"The painter introduced the first song with a picture entitled, Mr Soul, Neil plugged in his guitar and all hell broke loose. "



Le Grand Rex looks like a cinema complex on the outside and to be honest, you would probably walk right past it without giving it a second thought if it weren’t for the 30 feet high red letters on one side of it, screaming REX at you in the kind of red colour normally reserved for Paris’ seedier side of town. Situated, as it is, on one of Paris’ main thoroughfares, the noise from the traffic outside does little to welcome you either, but once you step through the door it’s, well, it’s almost like walking back through time.


Suddenly the grey Paris street dissolves into a lovely warm brown and if it weren’t for the escalator on one side and the fashion sense of some of the people crowded around the merch stand, you’d think you were in the 1930’s. Once we’d traveled upstairs, the time trip was complete as the bar upstairs looks like the type of place gangsters used to hang out at in old crime movies. Damn I wish we still wore smart clothes like they did back then. As it was, a Neil young t-shirt stretched tight over a large belly and some saggy arsed jeans would have to do. It’s what everyone else was wearing, after all.


Taking our seats in the balcony (Incendiary couldn’t afford the rich seats) I instantly fell in love with the place. The stage is framed by a glowing red arch, that same Red from outside, but along the sides of the room sit what look like old stage sets, romantically lit, with mock-classical statues gazing down upon the stage. It is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful concert halls I’ve ever had the pleasure to sit in and then Neil Young came in and turned the stage into a yard sale. Instruments were given pride of place, arranged caring and lovingly for the first set, a circle of guitars and some kind of guitar/banjo crossbreed, a piano stage left and that old, wonderful pump organ, to stage right. Aside from that, it was just a mess of clutter, a bright red telephone, a statue of an American Indian, a bunch of illuminated letter signs, a giant fan, what looked like an old gas pump and, amongst a host of other things, hidden at the back, an artist’s easel and a gallery’s worth of paintings.


Although there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the way everything was laid out, I must say it seemed to suit the place and as Neil took to the stage, resplendent in a white suit, and sat down, I had a feeling that this was going to be a good night and as he started to play From Hank To Hendrix, I just sat back and smiled, knowing that this was going to be something special. After that came a stunning, spiky and impassioned version of nothing other than Ambulance Blues which alone was worth the price of admission. Ambulance Blues is the long, drawn out, drunken sprawl of a song that fills up most of side two on On The Beach and it is easily one of the greatest songs Neil’s ever written. On record it seems to go on for an hour and a half but you still want it to go on, it’s so beautiful, so relaxed and Neil just sounds like he’s about to burst into tears. It’s a wonderful song.


There’ve been a lot of years since the song was recorded and, I presume simply because of its length, it’s rarely been played on stage before, but nothing can prepare you for the impact the song still has. Ambulance Blues simply kills you. It captures your attention, holds your breath for its entire length and then leaves you collapsed in a heap, gasping for air. It may well be the single most beautiful song I’ve ever heard played live and it gives me goose pimples even now just thinking about it. If there was ever justification for charging 140 euros a ticket, like Neil did in Amsterdam, this was it. It was truly a magical moment and I thank my lucky stars that I was able to be there.


Sad Movies came next, but to be honest it just washed over me as the spell of Ambulance Blues took a while to wear off. I wasn’t keen on the synth-led version of A Man Needs A Maid, but I wasn’t complaining about it either. The rest of his acoustic set was just wonderful, Try, a spine tingling Harvest, After The Goldrush, Mellow My Mind (Neil in full on Kermit voice mode, and playing that banjo thing), Love Art Blues and a wonderful, toe-tapping Heart Of Gold.


As for the crowd, they were wonderful, respectful and polite, bar one. Some plonker decided to yell out for Stringman at almost every pause between songs, but what did make me laugh was the fact that he wasn’t asking for it to be played there and then, but for it to be played in Amsterdam the week after. Pre-gig heckling is a new one on me and I’m sorry to report that his wish actually came true. I don’t want this to become a regular occurrence.


After a twenty minute break, which gave Neil time to stretch his legs and a few thousand blokes just enough time to queue for the urinals, the second set began, and where the first set felt all reflective and calm, the second set was the complete opposite.


Neil was joined on stage by the rest of his band, Rick Rosas on bass, Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina, the wonderful Ben Keith on guitar, Anthony Crawford on guitar and backing vocals and his wife Pegi on backing vocals too. Also, hiding at the back of the stage, was an artist, painting a picture of a high rise building at night.


The painter introduced the first song with a picture entitled, Mr Soul, Neil plugged in his guitar and all hell broke loose. Within minutes Neil was rocking back and forth in that buffalo stomp style of his, sweat flinging from his body as a wall of feedback and strangled guitar strings leapt from the speakers and slapped the audience into shape. To say Mr Soul was powerful would be an understatement and the crowd seemed almost shell shocked at first. Don’t Cry No Tears allowed us all to catch our breath for a minute and then came two tracks from his latest album, Chrome Dreams II. The first, Dirty Old Man, must go down in the cannon of Neil songs that simply only work live, and I would put Fuckin’ Up, Welfare Mothers and Piece Of Crap into that category also. They’re pretty throwaway songs as far as Neil’s stuff goes, but for some reason the song really came to life here and I think that’s the Old Black effect, because when Neil plugs into that black guitar, you simply don’t have a choice but to take notice because the noise from it surrounds you, it penetrates you and it refuses to let go. It’s another magical thing to be in the presence of Neil and Old Black and I, personally, can not get enough of it. Hearing Bad Fog Of Loneliness and Winterlong back to back was a personal highlight but the outstanding track in the second set had to be the gargantuan, twenty minute or so version of No Hidden Path. Another track from Chrome Dreams II, it almost bore no resemblance to its recorded version, again thanks to the power of Old Black. As Neil stared into a blinding light, his hair glowing as if on fire, he carved out aural shapes and textures from that guitar that were apocalyptic in nature and yet stunning and beautiful at the same time. It was astonishing and a fitting, wonderful climax to a fantastic second set.


After a few minutes of rapturous applause, the band returned, to cheer us up with solid renditions of the classic Cinnamon Girl and Rockin’ In The Free World and then we were treated to a likeable cover of The Shadows’ The Sultan, complete with fat man in a genie costume and a giant gong. Neil certainly doesn’t do things by half.


As we left, battered, bruised and shell shocked, we simply had to stop and remind ourselves how lucky we were. Neil Young is constantly written off as a has been, mainly for his recent recorded work, but I don’t think there’s anybody out there, Dylan, The Stones or any of those other classic artists currently doing the rounds that still has the same fire in their belly, the intensity on stage or the sheer balls to come out and play something like Ambulance Blues.


Neil Young is God. Let us pray at his feet.


Words: Damian Leslie