LONDON (Reuters) - If Mount Rushmore featured rock ‘n’ rollers instead of U.S. presidents, the faces of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen would surely be carved there.
The two elder statesmen showed just why they are venerated by fans of all ages at the Hard Rock Calling festival in central London’s Hyde Park this weekend in performances brimming with passion, energy and timeless songs.
To cap it all, Sir Paul McCartney joined Young on stage for his encore, literally bowing at his feet as the Canadian played a feedback-drenched version of the Beatles “A Day in the Life.”
Now aged 63 and 59, neither Young nor Springsteen has let up the pace in recent years. Both have released new albums in the past several months which had their moments even if they did not reach the heights of past classics.
They each took prominent positions against former U.S. President George W. Bush and the Iraq War. Springsteen campaigned hard for Barack Obama and played at his presidential inauguration.
Politics was largely absent from the Hyde Park shows though as they focused on entertaining the summer crowds in London, after headlining the Glastonbury Festival earlier in the week.
Young took to the stage on Saturday night looking like an old mountain man seeking shelter from a storm, with his bedraggled, thinning hair, craggy features and muttonchop sideburns. Not known for indulging his audiences, he played a crowd-pleasing set which drew heavily on “Harvest,” his best-known album, and the guitar-heavy “Everybody Knows this is Nowhere.”
He kicked off in his “Godfather of Grunge” persona with a crunching version of “Hey, Hey, My, My” and its refrain “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” He then stormed though a number of hard rockers, delighting rapturous fans, before switching to a mellow mood with a run of country-flavored numbers including “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man,” as night fell on the park.
Young finished with a blazing version of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” uncharacteristically leading the crowd in a bout of arm-waving and leaving his black guitar wailing feedback, its strings shredded.
McCartney, an old friend, bounded on stage to join Young for the encore of “A Day in the Life,” hugging Young and dancing around him. The two were clearly having fun.
Among the crowd was Beth Harley, a 26-year-old archaeologist, who had just arrived from Turkey on Saturday morning to see Young. She said she had grown up listening to his music as her parents played it all the time.
“It’s got a lot of edge. The songs don’t seem to age. It still seems relevant to what’s going on now,” she said.
If Young is a willful eccentric, Springsteen is the great showman who delivers every time.
Taking the stage with the mighty, black-clad E. Street band, he launched into The Clash song “London Calling,” bellowing its refrain “we live by the river” loud enough to be heard just down the road at Buckingham Palace. He then moved into more familiar territory with “Badlands” and the pace didn’t let up for the next three hours.
Springsteen ran around the stage, danced, and strutted along a special platform to get close to the fans and collect signs with song requests. He sang plenty of old favorites, switching from songs on the dreams and struggles of the working man to joyful sing-alongs.
You’ll probably never see a concert crowd where the fans look so deliriously happy as a Springsteen show. And no one looks like they are having more fun than the Boss himself.
“He’s got so much energy, so much life. He just gets better with age. It doesn’t stop him,” said Karen Colsen, a 47-year-old graphic designer who had bought her partner tickets as a Valentine’s Day gift.
Highlights of the show were two songs which he doesn’t often play live -- an elegiac “Racing in the Street,” featuring a stately piano coda, and an exuberant “Rosalita.” But he also performed Stephen Foster’s 1854 song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” reminding the audience of the millions of unemployed in the United States and Britain.
“He’s the good side of America, the bits we all like,” said Nic Saunders, a 36-year-old college lecturer from Reading who has seen Springsteen 16 times previously.
“His themes are universal - girls, boys, cars, getting married, f***ing up,'” Saunders said.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are if you write good songs.”