Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Twisted Road to Worcester

It seems that, whenever KJ and I travel to and from Worcester, our GPS takes us on the most circuitous routes. Worcester trips are fairly uncommon for us, of course, but Friday night our paths met up with Neil Young's Twisted Road Tour at The Hanover Theater for the Performing Arts, a somewhat recently renovated venue in Massachusetts' second-largest city.

On Twitter, a fellow beer geek recently lauded one of her friends as a master of pairing beer and music, a description said friend is yet to truly live up to, in my opinion. But, the suggestion got me thinking about this concept. Are there certain beers that would go better with certain bands?

I suppose a Belgian white or a hefeweizen would go great with a summery sounding album, and maybe a porter or a stout would go well with music that could be described as dark. Also, quite possibly beer that goes well with certain types of food could be paired with a band whose style is indigenous to the area known for that particular cuisine. So, I can see how this could work. Nevertheless, it's an angle I might be exploring in the future.

Neil Young's varied catalog would make such an exercise almost impossible, though, but since this was our night out to celebrate my recent birthday, KJ surprised me by taking me to a great place called the Armsby Abbey. Specializing in Belgian imports, this small tavern had such a diverse selection of drafts that I only recognized about one-third of the menu, one of which was the 20% ABV Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA.

I wasn't feeling up to the task of drinking a beer three times the alcohol content of what I'm used to, so I opted for one that was only twice as strong. The 13.6% Dark Horse Double Crooked Tree IPA was the closest thing on the Abbey's menu to something that sounded appropriate to consume prior to a Neil Young show. Obviously an Imperial IPA, it was good, although the alcohol seemed to sneak up on me like hard liquor, but it wasn't the best beer we tried that night.

KJ's first—and only, since she was driving—beer of the night, a Mikkeller 1000 IBU, was the best selection of all. A 9.6% Imperial IPA produced by a small brewery in Denmark, this creation has that wonderful grapefruity hops aroma and flavor that I recently discovered is my absolute favorite characteristic of the best beers of this style. Just as importantly, of course, it's very well balanced, and the fact that it's brewed by two guys—Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Kristian Klarup Keller—who, just five years ago, were home brewers working out of their kitchen, only added to its appeal.

Legendary Scottish folkster Bert Jansch opened the show. I honestly thought he looked younger than Neil from my seat in the balcony, but it turns out he's 66, two years Young's senior. Despite his advancing years, there is no doubt he can still play the hell out of an acoustic guitar. Not being very familiar with his material, I thought his set was good, but of course, I was eagerly anticipating the headliner.

Friday was the seventh time I've seen Neil live, but this was the first occasion it was an entirely solo show. His set started out really strong, with acoustic versions of "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," "Tell Me Why," and "Helpless" to kick things off, but that momentum quickly subsided when the next three songs were his less-than-inspiring new material.

I'm not generally one to complain about an artist playing the new stuff that I haven't heard yet, but—and it pains me to say this—Neil's songwriting abilities are clearly fading. I have friends—much tougher critics than I—who think that Greendale and Sleeps With Angels are his only worthwhile albums of the past 20 years—since Ragged Glory, that is.

Personally, I think the '90s and '00s have produced a lot of good, even great, Neil Young material in addition to those two. But, his last album—Fork in the Road—is easily his worst since the debacle that was Are You Passionate?, and my initial impression of his forthcoming material doesn't provide me with a lot of optimism.

The fact that he played his new material wasn't really my issue. However, the fact that the show was almost entirely new material and greatest hits was a bit disappointing. I guess I was hoping for a set list that included a few more "deep cuts," like his show at the Orpheum Theater that I attended back in December of 2007.

But, when it comes to concerts, you rarely get what you expect, and overall, this was still a pretty good show. The sound was excellent, and Young's somewhat unorthodox rendering of the classic "Cortez the Killer," which surprisingly didn't seem instantly recognizable to most of the crowd, was the true highlight of the performance. But, I don't think it's setting the bar too high, given that he's my favorite artist, to say I expect better than pretty good from Neil Young.

Let's hope it was just that I chose to pair the wrong beer with this style of music.