By Pete Ross Feb.1.2009
In: Concerts

Big Day Out Sydney - NEIL

Big Day Out 09

Well, what is arguably Australia’s biggest and most eminent music festival wraps up in Perth today. I figure it would be remiss if TMB didn’t bring its wonderful readers some correspondence from the front lines of Sydney’s Homebush Olympic precinct.

This year’s event toured five cities in Australia and one in New Zealand,  and was headlined by the Prodigy and the legendary Neil Young. The event was, luckily, unhampered by violence or any other dramas, but in most cities, was hindered by extreme heat. Regardless, the bands played on.

Some indulgent pre-event drinkies unfortunately altered my plans and held me up; on my to-see list were early sets by TZU, Eddy Current Supression Ring and the Grates. Next time.

I hit Homebush just after lunchtime. The public transport and entry were refreshingly seamless. First band: the Ting Tings.

I have a theory – the Ting Tings are one of those bands, particularly on this year’s BDO tour, that everyone will profess a vague interest in before immediate shameful denial.

“The Ting Tings? Yeah I wanna see them! Uhh..I mean…you know, if they’re on, I might check them out, you know…”

I have to put my hand up at that one. Luckily my guilty pleasure was vindicated when they proved an overwhelmingly enjoyable, energetic live act.  Frontwoman White echoed her Manchurian riot-girl roots by pirhouetting ceaselessly around the stage whilst pounding out irresistably poptastic basslines on a white four-stringer. They can’t really be a pop band if they play their instruments so damn well, can they?

White remained a tiny firecracking ball of energy throughout the 45 odd minutes the band was on stage; unfortunately De Martino, White’s partner in crime, was out of my field of vision. Altogether, though, the packed crowd was in the palm of White’s small but electric hands; any doubt about this was sent packing by a solid convoy of feelgood hits of the summer; We Walk, That’s Not My Name and Shut Up and Let Me Go were unveiled. I think its fair to say that these guys will probably be back, with more than one album under their belt, and if they do, they will not be doing a mid-afternoon set on a minor stage.

I spent most of the remainder of the afternoon chilling out and soaking up the hypnotic bohemia in the covered Lilypad arena. Soul diva Paris Wells’ musical spell was cast upon the scattered crowd gradually; in a wildly, startlingly eclectic set, she wove funk, old-school hip hop, jazz, Motown era soul, 80s pop, modern gangster rap and god-knows-what-else into an arseshakingly good musical tapestry. Wells’ show was decked out in a hello-sailors theme; Paris herself with the Admiral’s hat hanging seductively from her coiffeured blonde locks, her disc-spinning MC also in dress whites, and her two African American backing singers as quite vocally able seamen. (No jokes please)

As someone who values diversity above almost anything else in music, I was a captive audience to Wells’ awesome demonstration of talent and inspiration. In the course of one short set, the number of samples, licks, riffs and references she pulled out from all corners of music was constantly exhilarating and spurred the small band of dancing audience members to burn the floor even harder. I’d have a hard time remembering all the covers and riffs she incorporated, but I remember a top-notch Al Green cover. Her MC was a little grating, but her backing singers were straight out of the Stax era. Fuck yeah.

Next on the Lilypad stage was burlesque act What Makes Men Blush. The three-dame troup scored a lucrative support when Peaches toured Australia late last year. I’ll be blunt and admit straight-up that I don’t really get burlesque, but I can say the three were not exactly shrinking violets and definitely put on a show. A stinking hot Sydney afternoon with a beer-bloated and drug-fuelled audience may not have been the most conducive arena for what WMMB had to offer, but don’t begrudge it them: you take what gigs you can get.

I stuck around a while longer in the Lilypad in the knowledge that there is always some interesting weird shit going down there. Never was that assumption more on-the-mark than when Canadian performer Son of Dave emerged. Like a wandering bluesman of eras long gone by, Benjamin Darvill (real name) fronted up to the crowd with little more than a harmonica, a gin-edged baritone and a pair of choice, hard-stompin’ wingtips.

Darvill’s style evokes legendary blues names like Son House and John Lee Hooker. What he brings to the format, however, is a unique modern touch. On stage in front of him was an pedal-board array of electronic effects –  stomp-boxes, loop pedals, repeat pedals and, likely, numerous other gadgets. Darvill was as smooth as Southern Comfort, looping echoed harmonica licks into his reverbed foot-stomping and bellowing his blue-note sorrow over it all. Along the way, he took us through bluegrass territory and added some modern touches from areas as far-flung as funk and modern R&B.

Next on my list was Melbourne punksters The Living End. I have to say Chris Cheney and co. were one of the reasons I came to the festival to begin with. I made sure to infiltrate the D-barrier half an hour beforehand, and was quite keen to hear a barrage of top-ten punkabilly anthems.

Anticlimactically, the anthems came, but with very little passion. Lead singer Cheney seemed tired, sick or perhaps just not feeling it. I could not possibly fault the setlist. Second Solution, Prisoner of Society, All Torn Down, Who’s Gonna Save Us, What’s on Your Radio, and Moment in the Sun all got a workout, the to delectation of the all-Aussie audience, but only bassist Scott Owen and drummer Andy Strachan seemed to be in the ball game. Cheney’s vocals were almost constantly flat and his normally outstanding guitar chops were sloppy and dispassionate.

As an (armchair) fan of these guys, who was really looking forward to seeing them, I hate to rag on them, but, as a musician and critic, I would be remiss in not singling out Cheney for criticism. A big let-down at the Big Day Out.

With my eardrums trembling in anticipation of the on-stage arrival of the eminent Mr Young, I went a-ramblin’ through the king-sized carnivalè in search of serendipity. This I found at the V Stage, where Regurgitator’s enigmatic Quan was spinning poetic, Byron-esque lyrics to a crowd shrouded in their own questionably-scented cigarette smoke. Observing for only a few songs, I was nonetheless floored that someone from a band like Regurgitator could be such a closet Dylan Thomas. Backed by an admirably precise (and, incidentally, fucking hot) female drummer, Quan really surprised.

From the time the first band announcements were made, however, the Big Day Out for me was going to be all about Neil Young. I procured supplies and camped the D while the Arctic Monkeys were still nailing out their last chords, and played the waiting game for a while.

Now – Neil Young.

God damn. Within 15 minutes of this man taking the stage, I was a disciple. A casual fan before, an apostle after. I thought this was going to be a really good concert. It was, in fact, one of the most emotionally cathartic, the most entrancing I have ever had the privilege of attending.

Heart of Gold, Cinnamon Girl, Old Man, The Needle and the Damage Done, Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World, Hey Hey My My, Cortez the Killer. He played every classic hit he has ever had. But in the end, none of these mattered. Young needed not a single one of his stable of anthems to shine – merely six strings and his faithful band of old music warriors.

Young intermixed his armory of classics with remarkable, hypnotic extended jams that seemed each to last a lifetime and then some. His lead guitar style, grungy, schitzoid, yet deeply philosophical, is still relevant after over 40 years of professional musicianship, and his ability to captivate still remarkable. 40 years, and his voice has, if anything, only amplified its own spectral, haunting nasality.

From the outset, Young was clearly and distinctly one of the old school. Nothing else that entire day could hold a candle to his immense catharsis or his sheer insight into the mindset and mechanics of Western society.

Many have complained about deficient crowds at Young, him being a headliner and all. I frankly don’t care – every single person inside the D-barrier got it. I have never seen anything like NY.

Young’s stage setting focussed bizarrely on a polycoloured jumble of neon letters and numbers along the back of the stage’s canopy. As his set unfolded, my mind worked feverishly to try to decipher this cryptic string, but to no avail.

The time came, and it was time for Neil to put up his guitar and leave the stage. Well, just about. A hit-hungry crowd, aware of a few spare minutes in the timetable, yet unsure of what could possibly have been held back for the encore, screamed his name regardless.

After a modest delay, the hero of the day returned. What would he play? Every possible crowd-pleaser had already been exhausted in his 90-minute marathon effort!

“…I read the news today, oh boy…”

A brilliant and poignant Beatles cover was the encore. Not to mention epic.

“He blew his mind out in a car,

He didn’t notice that the lights had changed…”

With a raptured audience and an atmosphere that was electric, to say the least, Young could not go wrong. His frenzied, passionate, desperate outpouring of A Day in the Life brought it all home. The bitter anger, the hubris, the fifty-year despair at the pure nasty hypocrisy of rock and roll, and its metaphorical implications for all music, and for all society, the horrifying understanding.

“A crowd of people stood and stared…”

Neil Young has always simply understood things that nobody else did; he has always been able to comprehend things that nobody else could deal with, for shame of being terrified beyond common sense. A unique, bitterly cynical insight has always been a monopoly of his.

Whereas the Beatles relied on cacophonic, misplaced crescendos to convey their supreme scepticism, Young did much more. Building from the first second of this classic cover until the last smashed-out note, noone could deny that he was continuing a bequest from Lennon.

Young’s tribute climaxed until his music hit a titanic ascendency, at which point he dashed his already-thrashed guitar to the ground, and proceeded to methodically torture it string-by-string until his wrath had been satiated. From one Dean Markley string to the next, in the feedback-laden Valhalla of grunge that was his distortion-soaked finale, he rendered each string as if it were an Al-Qaida detainee in Guantanamo Bay, lashing it, tearing it, beating it as if it were solely responsible, raining down pain until he had no more purgatory to give.

At the epic apogee of this genius Lennon tune, he laid his Les Paul to rest in peace, against the drum riser, with an unanswered eternal cry of pain, echoing in agonied feedback throughout the sound rig. But this was not enough – as if channelling the assassinated grief of his covered hero, Young kicked and punched his guitar, brutally snapping each string in some sick unison as if to metaphorically sound the simultaneous death and mockery triumph of rock and roll. In a final sick epilogue, he bunched his strings together and literally whipped his pickups into a submissive frenzy of feedback.

As the death tone of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest immortals echoed sickly throughout the stadium in its final throes, I could not help but ponder its meaning. At its end, ten thousand people marched out of the arena, satiated but mystified, pleased but not really understanding.

And so it was, as a vast crowd filtered out of the D-barrier for the final time that evening, a solitary guitar remained on-stage, resting against the drum riser. Now devoid of all of its strings, it remained a legacy of the dream of rock and roll, now raped and descrated beyond all significant meaning – not just by Young’s violence, but by successive generations of artless, vacuous demons that each called themself ‘rock’.

Sitting in the grandstands after the show gave me quite an insight into precisely what Monsieur Young was talking about. Watching the cleanup crew set in at the end of the night, I could think about nothing but the lesson Young taught about the destructive, horrific, dark side of rock n’ roll. As I watched from the grandstands, 1000 cleaners scoured the ground floor, battlefield as it was, to make an attempt to make up for the destruction. This was truly the dark side that Neil had tried to tell me about.

Perhaps rock and roll isn’t so grand. Perhaps it should take a good hard look at itself. Perhaps it leaves a tragic trail of human and spiritual debris as it screams and parties and drinks and snorts its way through Western society.

After the Goldrush, I just wanted to sit and cry and think or something. The less sensible part of me swung by the Dropkick Murphys for about ten minutes, but after Young’s overwhelming king-tide of catharsis, I just simply could not watch any more bands that day. From what I saw of the Dropkick Murphys, they weren’t as good as what I was expecting, but if you had have debuted the Stones that night, I would have told them to jump in a lake. After Young, I just wanted to cry.

Only in Neil Young’s final moments on-stage did his backdrop jumble reveal itself. Like pop culture around it, it melted away in the face of sheer talent, to reveal just one word: NEIL.