Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Like a Tropical Storm

We just got back from Neil Young. Fun, I'm glad we went, but not the pantheon concert I hoped for.

First a word about the venue, WaMu Theatre. It's the worst place I've ever seen a show. WaMu stands for Washington Mutual, the Seattle-based bank that bought naming rights to this place when it was built a year or two ago. To call it a theater is a vast overstatement. It's really a big, concrete slab with concrete pillars and a low ceiling. It feels like the anteroom to a sports stadium, which in fact is what it is -- it's glommed onto Qwest Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks -- and it's normally used for small-scale convention-style events like car shows, corporate team-building meetings and football fan rallies.

For this concert, they wrapped deep blue curtains around a large section of the room, enough for about 7,000 seats, leaving a smaller section on one end for a few concession stands selling $9 beers and one overcrowded corner "store" selling overpriced Neil Young t-shirts. Overheard in line: "I like that white one, number 35." "Dude, that's not a number, that's the price."

Harvest? You bet.

There were all these WaMu dudes with yellow polos walking around checking tickets, pointing to the restrooms (actually part of Qwest Field, I think) and handing out little guitar-shaped, WaMu-branded bottle openers. Michelle scored one.

Unlike most concerts we attend these days, where we're the oldest people in the crowd, Michelle and I were probably below the median age at this one. There were a few college-looking kids, maybe dragged along by their grandparents, but most people seemed in the 50-65 range. A good number were Jerry Garcia-lookalikes -- where do they hang out during the day? -- but most were the pleasant, slightly paunch-sprouting, nicely trimmed graysters who help with your mortgage or attend the morning news meeting.

Thirty years ago these folks would have cast a giant cloud of marijuana smoke into the air at a Neil Young concert or maybe tossed their clothes into the aisles. Here, with the WaMu police everywhere, the craziest crime I saw was a surreptitious cell-phone photo.

We sat in Section E, on the left side, midway back, between two aging hippie couples. Like a lot of the crowd they looked like concert veterans and liable to spark a fatty at any minute. At one point the guy on my right reached into his pocket, grabbed something that fit in the palm of his hand and caught a glint of light, and handed it to his wife.

A pipe, I thought? Nope, opera glasses.

Neil Young took the stage after a lame opening set by his wife, Pegi Young, who I saw described on one Web site as "a trained vocalist" (bad sign). As he usually does, apparently, Young split the concert into acoustic and electric sets, each about 40 minutes and separated by a 20-minute intermission.

There were one or two well known songs in the acoustic set, which concluded with "Heart of Gold," but many were obscure older songs or downbeaty tunes from the 2005 release "Prairie Wind." There was a similar feel to much of the material, and Young himself even said, "All my songs are alike."

I kept thinking of the famous 1966 Bob Dylan concert when, after an opening acoustic set of the folk music he was known for, Dylan whipped out an electric guitar and was booed and met with shouts of "Judas." Tonight's show was just the opposite. The crowd seemed restless for laid-back, melancholy old strumming Young to finish up so the fiery rocker, the "godfather of grunge," could take over.

Between every tune people were shouting out suggestions. "Hurricane!" one guy yelled, referring to the hit rocker "Like a Hurricane." Young scoffed. "Yeah, right," he said. "Nice segue. One thing follows another, is what I've always found."

"Tell us a story, Neil," another guy yelled. So Young said, OK, here's a story. Once I was heartbroken and depressed and drunk and I went into a little bar, played all my songs for free and tried to figure things out. He paused. "That's it," he said. "That's the story."

After the intermission came the electric set, and I figured things would really get cooking. But somehow they didn't, at least not until the very end of the show. It might have been the setting -- even though the sound was pretty good, considering all the concrete, the place felt sterile; there was no energy. In a nice theater like the Paramount here in Seattle, or LA's Wiltern, the same stuff might have rocked.

But it wasn't only the venue. Between the $100 ticket prices, the $35 t-shirts, the $9 beers and the sort of listless performances, the concert seemed less like a Neil Young rock show to me than a Neil Young brand experience. A cool, vintage brand, like Indian motorcycles, but still a brand. If Neil had wrapped up a song and then turned the stage over to a WaMu veep ready to PowerPoint his way through the new Chiat/Day ad campaign I wouldn't have been shocked.

Eventually, though, he did glide into a very long, satisfying jam on a song that I think was "No Hidden Path," from the new CD, and I thought, this is the Neil Young concert I expected. Even though I didn't know the song I felt like I could have identified Young's sound, without vocals, based only on the fiery, feedbacky, layered and distorted guitar riffs that were part 1969 psychedelica, part 1991 grunge. It was pretty cool.

After that he came back for an encore that included a nice version of "Cinnamon Girl" and, finally, "Like a Hurricane."

"You are like a hurricane," that song goes, "there's calm in your eye. ... Blah blah, blah-blah-blah-blah, ... I want to love you, but I'm getting blown away."

That's sort of how I felt. I wanted to love the concert. But I wasn't blown away. It wasn't a hurricane, more like a tropical storm, category: 3 gliomas.


Michelle said...

I agree, listless and selfish concert, too many pitches for songs on the new album nobody knows, not enough old favorites. It was maybe a $50 concert. Anyways. Neil made me think a lot about my little blue fender I bought a few months back. It made Mark think of it too. He turned to me at one point and said "You have to play."
It's true, I do. I did play it every day for a month or two, and then blam. Stopped. Haven't picked it up in months. Can't remember why I stopped.
Listening to Neil, I thought, Heart of Gold -- maybe I can learn that? And Hurricane -- I used to play that. I won't have Mike around to do the solo any more, but I can learn the rhythm part. What was it Lynette? ACGC?
GACA? Something. I bet I can find it online...

mich said...

Great review. I want to hire you onto my staff. I'm so glad I didn't go to this concert, even though I was tempted. The main cons for me were the ticket prices and the venue. I even refused to see a couple of my favorite bands becuause they were at WaMu. Blech. Anyway, thanks for the report -- I kind of feel like I was there!

Mark said...

Thanks Mich, and I'd love to join your staff. Deal me in.