JAMES ROBINSON discerns the highs from the lows at Big Day Out 2009.

THE Big Day Out, whether you want to admit it or not, is the premiere New Zealand music festival. For now at least. It is our lifeline to feeling that we get at least a taste of the big international festivals that we lust after in glossy and vacuous music magazines. It’s all that we’ve got really. We’re stuck with it.

The line up is invariably always extremely divisive. The sound is usually average. The Auckland Big Day Out is the one where the organisers and technicians are getting their ducks in line. And then there is the fact that spending the day amongst 40,000 of your fellow music fans can be occasionally stressful.

But despite all this, I’ve always loved Big Day Outs. Faults aside, it is the one opportunity (although if Rhythm and Vines continues on the ascendancy…) each year to go and take in a whole heap of big dollar international music in one sitting for less than the price of your average Rolling Stones show. The ideal Big Day Out will hold a few things you’re really in to, a couple you’re kind of in to, and the odd curiosity. 2009 was no exception. It just had a Neil Young sized carrot dangled at the end of it.

Goodwill was quickly countered though. The timetable was truly a terrible one. Fantomas and the Dropkick Murphys both overlapped with Neil Young, drowning out two smaller cult names with one really big shadow. Both would have been fantastic shows to work into my day. Then the organisers did another disservice to concert goers by overlapping Hot Chip and Neil Young, and Lupe Fiasco and TV On the Radio. From six bands, I now only had three on my list to watch. Shame.

Which made for a curious day. No charging between stages. A lot of sitting around. It was a curious crowd too; the absence of blocks of fans and genres present in other Big Day Outs meant there were no dominant sub-cultures in attendance. There were no abundance of emos, metal-heads or goths. It was a slightly undersold Big Day Out. A relaxed assortment, which set the tone for the day, or lack thereof. It was a strange Big Day Out. Crowd and timetable really dictate the festival experience. And fate had tasked us to just kind of sit around and wait for our treats in a slightly atmosphere-less Mt. Smart.

Sadly, what was there to passively consume was a horribly mixed bag. The Black Kids were good, even if they wear a lack of originality a bit too proudly that will likely doom them to a where-are-they-now feature in a few years. The Ting Tings had any fun they could have started drowned out in a horrible mix. Bullet for My Valentine were enthusiastic showmen who sadly make terrible music. Likewise for Pendulum. The Living End are about a decade past any saliency and the stale and sad way they wear their age made me wince. The really only surprise came from the Arctic Monkeys who played a tight set of hits and new songs with energy, wit and poise. A true hype band of yesteryear, these guys really surprised me by being good, good. They seem to have added maturity and class to their boundless enthusiasm, and it was a nice mix.

I was really gagging to see three shows: TV on the Radio, My Morning Jacket and Neil Young. TV on the Radio opened the show with debut EP rarity ‘Young Liars’, and played a set ripe with new album cuts such as ‘Dancing Choose’ and ‘Golden Age’ and Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes classics ‘Satellite’ and ‘Staring at the Sun’ to get the crowd moving. Tunde Adepimbe is a born showman and a hell-of-a-dancer. The band was tight, and groovy when needed, creating walls of sound to give their songs the depth they possess on record. But TV on the Radio can also rock as well: Return to Cookie Mountain’s ‘Wolf Like Me’ was fierce, and worked the crowd into a frenzy. Such is the cruel irony of festivals though – it was over far, far too soon and we all left to pull out that classic festival line, “I would’ve loved to see that in a smaller venue with a longer set.”

My Morning Jacket weren’t bad, but an open-air festival and a one-hour slot didn’t really allow them time to do their live show justice. A band that has a reputation around their building atmospherics and keen sense of improvisation was kind of lost on the crowd; but it did make a good backdrop for dinner.

And then we were off to Neil Young. And all of a sudden I don’t have enough words for brilliant.

He tore into the grunty ‘Love and Only Love’ off (the slightly overlooked) Ragged Glory, and immediately I was struck by what an amazing guitarist he is. Unconventional, he tears at the guitar violently, as if it was an extension of himself. He plays with an almost furious joy, a slight wince on his face as he unleashed his wonderful noise on the audience. ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ came next, and the energy continued as the crowd sparked even further off such a truly great song. It was spellbinding to see him belt out such a banner song, nearly thirty years later with such intensity. “They give you this, but then you pay for that” was almost yelled at the crowd, and was a chilling moment.

And it was a wall of hits from there. Young is notorious for playing newer material and shying away from sets chocked full of crowd-pleasers. His occasional lack of nostalgia for his classic material has given him an interesting live reputation. So knowing this, what followed was even more of a treat. ‘Powderfinger’ and ‘Cortez the Killer’ were spellbinding; ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ and ‘Everybody Knows This is Nowhere’ got the crowd singing along’ and ‘Rocking in the Free World’ took on a surprising mosh-pit.

Young could’ve then taken it down from those high rockin’ heights to a three song run from Harvest (‘Needle and the Damage Done’,’Old Man’, and ‘Heart of Gold’) as well as a cut from After the Goldrush (Don Gibson’s ‘Oh, Lonesome Me’) so seamlessly. Rather, it was the two sides of the Neil Young coin – the godfather of Grunge and the heartfelt singer-songwriter – side by side. Not only did it work, but it was beautiful. Even when it was slightly naff – a solo, pump organ version of ‘Mother Earth’ was slightly below the bar set by the rest of the concert – you still forgave him for it and sang along anyway.

As an encore, the band returned for a version of the Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’, thousands singing along in unison in what might just be one of the more beautiful Big Day Out conclusions. The song descended into another taut, frenzied jam and soon Neil Young was tearing his strings off and unleashing layer upon layer of glorious feedback. And then he was gone. This once and a lifetime show over. I was smiling and slightly wordless. It was quite possibly the best ever Big Day Out finish to one of the most middling Big Day Outs ever.

On Tuesday as I returned to work, Pitchfork informed me that Neil Young is soon to release a concept album about hybrid cars. I’m guessing future audiences may not be so lucky...