I guess August 31st, 1996 would have been just the second time I saw Neil Young live, and the first time I could hear him (the sound at his CNE Grandstand show was atrocious; it was like listening to the ocean in a seashell). And it was a goodie.
This was also my first time at Molson Park in Barrie…is it possible it was my only time at the nearly-iconic outdoor concert space? Oasis opened up and though I was musically mature enough to realize that they suck I was still musically immature enough to be at least a little excited to see a band so radio-famous.
They were fine. I recall one of the duelling brothers kicking the other one off the stage (or was it the other way around?) so he could play their worldwide smash hit Wonderwalll by himself.
Of course the meat-and-potatoes of the day was Neil Young, and most deservedly so. This was my first time seeing Crazy Horse (Booker T and the MG’s had backed him up the first time I saw him) and though I was too naive to really understand the difference (a backup band was a backup band, no?) my body felt the force of the Horse instantly when they opened the set with a punching Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).
Neil proceeded through a set that even a newb like me could sing along to, dropping career-defining standards one after another; Sugar Mountain, Heart of Gold, Cinnamon Girl, Like a Hurricane, Needle and the Damage Done, and Helpless, which of course opened with everyone’s favourite lyric of the evening, “There is a town in North Ontario…”
Aw man, it was so great, and such a beautiful night out too. Aside from just the blatantly great music, I was mostly struck by the elephant in the room that was Neil Young himself. Despite being a super-famous radio staple who could skate through the hits and still have us all singing along, Neil was tearing it up like he was twenty feet tall. He was excited and seemed really, really into it all the way to his encore (Tonight’s the Night and Roll Another Number (For the Road)). When he came out for a second encore and closed the show with Prisoners of Rock ’n’ Roll and finally Rockin’ in the Free World it was like he was playing for his very life.
All these years (and Neil Young concerts) later the reason I keep going to back to see this guy play is because he absolutely, steadfastly refuses to rest on his laurels. He unquestionably does all he can to ensure that he’s ready to make interesting music every time he sets foot in front of an audience, and the result is always inspiring at the very least and usually quite staggering.
(On the way…hmmm…probably back to my girlfriend’s parents house in Markham…for the night we pulled into the first restaurant we found along the road south out of Barrie, which was a Chinese place. It was about five minutes to midnight when we poked our heads through the door and saw a waiter putting chairs up on the tables. He waved us inside with a smile and started putting the chairs back on the floor. We were half-starved and really appreciated that they reopened just for us, but I was unnerved when the entire staff all but stood at attention along one wall as we eyed the menu. Two of them disappeared into the kitchen once we ordered but they were all back again to watch us eat. They weren’t trying to rush us, quite the opposite. Every sip of water or herbal tea brought one of the staff to the table to top us up; every time we emptied a plate another sprang over to clear it. It was like we had a posse of dining valets. Back then I was way too polite to enjoy it. I rushed through my food so they could close up and go home and didn’t touch my glass of water.)