Neil Young showed he definitely knew which country he was in as his tour hit Auckland last night. He, his band and crew - dressed in lab coats and Einstein hair or high-viz vests and helmets - assembled on stage as God Defend New Zealand (the monolingual no key-change version) rang out.

The reason for that patriotic gesture maybe had to do with the fact that Young and his sometime, long-time, high-decibel backing band Crazy Horse had recorded a crunching version of God Save the Queen (the very one, not the Sex Pistols) for album-before-last Americana.

That hymn had come after the intro music of A Day in the Life - the Beatles opus Young and another band of backers had covered brilliantly when he memorably closed 2009's Big Day Out.

That BDO set was a distillation of the Woodstock veteran's most enduring songs. This, on the other hand, was three hours to remind that being a Neil Young fan means you may not always get want you want. Even in a three-hour 17-song show which stretched from mid 60s Buffalo Springfield (Mr Soul) through to unreleased songs of uncertain vintage (Hole in the Sky, the piano-powered Singer Without a Song) via some often obscure stops (Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze from Re-ac-tor anyone?) in his vast catalogue in albums.


Yes, for a show which started with ours, it was a set more than a little short on Young's own anthems with only five songs qualifying as a greatest hit and greeted with elation and blessed relief by the full house.

There were just two singalong bits the whole night - Heart of Gold in a brief acoustic reprise and F***in' Up which was funny for the first minutes, less so for the next seven as guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro offered his own sung monologue.

The most recent Young-plus-Horse album Psychedelic Pill also got a fair showing. Off that, the autobiographical likes of Born in Ontario and Twisted Road (a long thank you note to Young's 60s peers which musically references fellow Canucks, The Band) helped give some of this concert a resonant theme: Old man takes a look at this life. No he didn't play that one.

While the 15 minutes plus of Pill's rambling baby boomer relationship essay, Ramada Inn provided, as did Surfer Joe, the night's dull patches.

And add a three-song encore (Danger Bird, Sedan Delivery, Roll Another Number for the Road), which took the best part of an hour to prove that Young and co can play like a middle-of-nowhere bar band when the mood takes them, and you had a show by a heritage act that didn't have much time for history. Though one which stoutly defended his all-time champ title for number and duration of searing guitar solos per song.

But - and this may be because Young's mad 1979 concert movie Rust Never Sleeps had blown my teenage mind at a particularly susceptible time - it was a show that still thrilled more than enough.

Sure, it helped that its oddball theatrical touches -the oversize prop amps, a walk-on role for a young woman depicting the singer in Without a Song, the lab guys replacing the Star Wars Jawas who roadied in Rust - echoed that movie, footage of which could be seen in the brief nostalgia showreel on the video screens.

And if it's good enough for that David Bowie guy to connect the dots to his late 70s heyday in his latest venture, it's good enough for Young. The clothing budget is more manageable too.


Dressed in flannel shirt, Aboriginal flag t-shirt , workboots and comfortable jeans, a jowly Young reworked some of his vast past without sentimentality. He was in fine voice and - despite a strapped right wrist - ferocious guitar.

Second song in, his solos in Powderfinger reminded his fretwork is far more elegant than the electric guitar primitive he's regarded as; there was ribcage-rattling riffage underneath both the relatively new Walk Like a Giant and the relatively ancient Hey Hey, My My, which dissolved into a freeform feedback skronk as it ended the main set more than two hours after Young and band had first cranked forth with Love and Only Love.

And while plenty of those songs maybe didn't really need another 32 or 64 bars to resolve the explorations of the previous ten minutes, it had its taut moments. The hulking Cinnamon Girl was over in a relative flash. Heart of Gold, one of only two songs with Young on acoustic guitar was stripped back to voice and harmonica and delicately lovely, a respite from the electrical surges before and after.

Together, it made for a concert that was crazy and confounding, exciting and exhausting.

No, there was no Like a Hurricane, Cortez the Killer ... and maybe a dozen other anthems that could have ticked a few more boxes for the faithful. But Neil Young ain't a box-ticking kind of guy. This was an indulgent but often wonderful reminder of that.

The Drones proved the best Oz import plonked upon us as opening act in a very long while. Their Aussie gothic noise blues attack and yarn-spinning has undoubtedly won them plenty of Birthday Party/Nick Cave comparisons in their first decade of existence. But by crikey they were good.

Set list:
Love and Only Love
Powder finger
Born in Ontario
Walk like a Giant
Hole in the Sky
Heart of Gold
Twisted Road
Singer Without a Song
Ramada Inn
F***in' Up
Cinnamon Girl
Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze
Mr Soul
Hey Hey My My

Danger Bird
Sedan Delivery
Roll Another Number for the Road