Rock column, Mail on Sunday, March 9 2008

Neil Young
Hammersmith Apollo, London

Union Chapel, London

Old rockers tend to become less prolific with age, often taking five or even ten years between albums. They have better things to do, obviously – attending investitures, pursuing their children’s friends, and advertising expensive luggage.

Neil Young, who always was his own man, has gone the other way. In the last three years, he has released four new albums, and three live ones. And all this after being treated for a brain aneurysm in March 2005. How much would he have done if he had been hale and hearty?

His oeuvre is monumental now: 40 studio albums, 32 of them solo, eight with his old bands – Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash and Young. And his concerts are epics too. He comes on at 8.35 and doesn’t finish till 11.40. Behind him, an artist silently paints at an easel, and by the end he has a whole exhibition’s worth of canvases.

Young does take a half-hour breather in the middle, and I’d love to know what he uses it for – full-body massage? Electro-shock therapy? A stiff drink, or a large spliff? – because he returns a different man. For 70 minutes, he has given a solo, acoustic set, satisfying but sedentary. He gets up only to switch from guitar to piano, and his movements are slow and sore. With his fretful air and battered linen suit, he is more like an author than a rock star. He looks every one of his 62 years; only his voice, soft and high and piercingly pure, is forever Young.

His fans, who have a deep possessive affection for him that goes beyond the merely fanatical, spend the interval debating how this wounded bear will cope with the demands of the hard-rock songs to come. They needn’t have worried: when he resurfaces, the years have been rolled back.

Young now has a five-piece band, a sharper suit – dark, and defiantly spattered with paint – and a sudden ability to stand up. He even moves to the beat, rocking steadily back and forth, like a perfectly fit bear. And he makes a tremendous noise: the sound of well-organised thunder.

He didn’t get where he is today by being a great editor of his own stuff, so there are longeurs in both sets, and puzzling omissions (The Needle And The Damage Done, Only Love Can Break Your Heart). But it’s a price worth paying for the moments of magic: the sweet crunch of From Hank To Hendrix, the riveting simplicity of Harvest, the rumbustious passion of Spirit Road, and the final, surging uplift of Like A Hurricane.

On My My, Hey Hey, he puts a touch of ferocity into his most famous line: ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away.’ Well, maybe, but better still to keep the fire blazing for 40 years.

Over at the Union Chapel, Goldfrapp are giving their first gig to promote the gently gorgeous new album Seventh Tree. The church is festooned with big white balloons and dozens of orangey candles, as if you’ve stumbled in on an unusually tasteful children’s party.

Alison Goldfrapp herself is child-like, an elf from the hips down, in leggings and pixie-boots, and a complicated clown above, in a less-than-glamorous peach smock. The stomping sexuality that she flaunted in her disco-glam period has vanished into thin air, in a move so unfashionable that it’s quite refreshing.

Goldfrapp’s new sound has been widely defined as folk, but as usual with Alison and her stage-shy partner Will Gregory, it’s more artful than that. Folk songs don’t tend to involve layers of synthesisers or titles like Cologne Cerrone Houdini. This is sophisticated electronic pop tinged with folk and psychedelia. It’s a bit 1966, a bit Seventies, a bit Eighties, and very 2008.

Alison’s stage presence is tentative, her movement negligible, and her small talk as terse as a teenager’s, but she makes up for it with these strong new songs, a punchy band and a golden voice. On the low notes, she is limited, which only adds to the sense of wonder when she takes off into glorious abstract swoops. It’s like watching an old aeroplane dawdle along the runway and then go up, up and away.