The first musician who says what an honour it is to share a bill with Neil Young comes across as opportunistic; when everyone is doing it, you have a potential clichė on your hands. Yet there is no denying the extraordinary influence of a man whose career has flirted with practically every conceivable style of music in the second half of the twentieth century. According to Lucy Rose, one of the first on the bill, Young was the first and foremost inspiration behind all her songs. Many more followed in gushing admiration.
On the other hand, all this was far from a negative. British Summer Time has evolved into quite an event, with four stages, enough bars to stop you missing a drink and six full days of music, which flourished despite the omnipotent sponsorship. Kicking off in a sweltering “Village Hall” style tent, The Webb Sisters were breaking out on their own after six years of touring with Leonard Cohen. Pleasant melodies compensated for the over-amplification of their guitar and harp, but it was a lush “If it be your will” by Ol’ Laughing Len himself that came off best.
Elsewhere, grungers Hero Fisher showed some promise and Tom Odell gave a varied set on the main stage, while Caitlin Rose packed out her tent so fully that there was a queue of hundred on a one-in-one-out basis. It all points to a breakthrough for the Nashville starlet, who now has two great albums under her belt. Luckily, Rose’s inaccessibility gave us the opportunity to discover Jack Savoretti, whose upbeat songs sound like hits in the making. Watch this space.
Unfortunately, before the main event, one must sit through Brooklyn’s (alleged) finest, The National. Now, in an age of drone missiles and drone packages, it’s probably inevitable that we will have drone music, but the sheer tinniness of The National’s sound is a tragic bore. Far better to try out Midlake, who have a certain tunefulness but are cursed with four guitars, which is probably two too many.
Then there was Neil, backed by Crazy Horse, though Billy Talbott was missing due to a stroke. Even so, the band brought that heavy, crunching Crazy Horse sound, allowing Young to crouch over his guitar, picking out notes like it was his first ever guitar solo. After 35 minutes, in which the band managed to play three extended songs, Young showed the proper appreciation of an audience by yelling at the crowd “You sad bastards. Stop crying and complaining.” Perhaps not surprising from the man who turned up in England in the mid-1970s fresh from the success of his alt-country classic Harvest and proceed to play the grungy, discordant Tonight’s the Night in full. Legend has it, he came out for a second set promising the audience something they’d heard before, and again launched into Tonight’s the Night.
Yet there was little perverseness to the set list at Hyde Park. After the Gold Rush, Only Love Can Break Your Heart and Heart of Gold were all great festival songs, while Cinnamon Girl and Down by the River were statuesque. Even a rendition of Blowin’ in the Wind, delivered solo, caught the attention of the crowd. For those on stage earlier, it was a lesson in delivery.
However, it was a magnificent Rockin’ in the Free World, which the band apparently didn’t know when to end, that whipped the crowd into a frenzy of dancing and chanting. It is one of the great ironic rock songs, its snarky political message belying the Lynyrd Skynyrd-like American exceptionalism it seems to profess. Every inch the ageing hippy, the selectiveness of Young’s targets, and the alternation between despair and self-righteousness has saved him from being labelled a bore. Set-opener Love and Only Love was delivered as an injunction to “break it down”, and even the new environmentalist anthem Who’s Gonna Stand Up And Save The World had some bite in the hands of Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
There are bands with more overt swagger, tighter musicianship and a more poppish beat, but few that can sweep all before them like this group.
Update: an earlier version of this article had Frank “Poncho” Sampedro missing with a broken hand. In fact, he is currently touring with the band.