MUSIC

Darren Middleton reflects on the time Powderfinger met Neil Young at the Fuji Rock Festival

ROCK NOSTALGIA: Powderfinger guitarist Darren Middleton believes the enduring legacy of Neil Young's Harvest is its blend of beautiful lyrics and melodies and primal energy. Picture: Paul Dear
ROCK NOSTALGIA: Powderfinger guitarist Darren Middleton believes the enduring legacy of Neil Young's Harvest is its blend of beautiful lyrics and melodies and primal energy. Picture: Paul Dear

IT was all too fleeting the one time Darren Middleton met Neil Young.

Powderfinger were at the peak of their commercial powers following the release of Odyssey Number Five and were playing Japan's iconic Fuji Rock Festival in 2001.

Young and his band Crazy Horse were among the headline acts on the stacked bill that also included Oasis, Tool, Eminem, Patti Smith and Alanis Morissette.

Just prior to the festival Powderfinger had met Young's guitar technician in Washington D.C, while touring with Coldplay, and he promised to introduce the five Brisbane lads to the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter.

Given Powderfinger's name was inspired by the song off Young's iconic 1979 live album Rust Never Sleeps, Middleton and his bandmates were incredibly excited. The introduction wasn't what they had hoped.

"We met Neil backstage before he went on and it's a terrible time to really try and meet someone when they're just about to go on and they're quite focused and they're ready to play," Middleton says.

"So it was just bit of a wave and an eyeball at each other and then we went out front and enjoyed the show.

"He was like 55 at that point and he's rocking out and putting all the young bands to shame."

What hasn't been fleeting is Young's influence on Middleton. Amazingly Middleton only became devotee of Young's work after he joined Powderfinger in 1992 to complete their line-up.

However, Young's 1972 country-folk classic Harvest has since become a major influence on Middleton's music, in particular his post-Powderfinger solo career.

So when Middleton and his ARC (Australian Rock Collective) bandmates Kram (Spiderbait), Davey Lane (You Am I) and Mark Wilson (Jet) were considering classic albums to tackle after their Beatles Abbey Road Live show, Harvest was a natural choice.

Harvest is the most commercially-successful album of Young's career, spawning the classics Heart Of Gold and Old Man. It's practically influenced every artist in the Americana or alt-country genre.

"It's between Harvest and After The Gold Rush," Middleton says of his favourite Young album. "Often it's the first stuff you hear of an artist. Harvest was probably the first chunk of Neil Young that I heard.

"It's pretty hard to put that album aside. It's really beautiful. Neil Young for me has always danced between incredibly beautiful lyrics and melodies and then there's this real raw primal thing."

Harvest was the top-selling album of 1972 in the US and Young famously shied away from the record's success and moved towards a less commercial distorted guitar sound in the mid-70s. That, in turn, would see Young labelled the "Godfather of Grunge" when he later inspired Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

Middleton says he can understand why Young rejected the mainstream appeal of Harvest.

"I know from my experience with Powderfinger with the song My Happiness," he says. "We dropped it from the set for a couple of years because for one reason or another it's too much and you feel like you've been cemented into that song.

SUPERGROUP: ARC are, from left, Davey Lane, Darren Middleton, Kram and Mark Wilson.

SUPERGROUP: ARC are, from left, Davey Lane, Darren Middleton, Kram and Mark Wilson.

"As an artist you're always looking forward. Sometimes you actively try to break the spell by not playing it. It's self-sabotaging to a degree."

Ultimately Powderfinger would come to reconcile their feelings about My Happiness.

"We did get to a point where we said, 'you know what, people are forking out their hard-earned money to see the band and they love that stuff, so it's our job to give it to them when they've paid to see a show'," he says.

"It's not all about us. When we're in the studio and writing a song, it can be all about us. But when you're performing live you're performing for people so you have to balance it out."

The experience of ARC has been a rewarding one for Middleton.

The Abbey Road Live show in 2019 drew rave reviews, but unfortunately COVID cancelled Let It Be Live this year, but it's been rescheduled for 2022.

"Everyone respects each other, so we all come to the table as four equals just wanting to put on a show and have fun," he says. "There's no stress, no contracts or things due.

"It's just someone saying 'do you wanna do this?' And the others going 'yes' and we do it. It's very simple."

ARC will perform Harvest live at the Albury Entertainment Centre (February 2); Her Majesty's Theatre, Ballarat (February 6); Lismore City Hall (February 9); Twin Towns, Tweed Heads (February 11); Civic Theatre, Newcastle (February 15) and Anita's Theatre, Wollongong (February 18).

This story Darren Middleton finds heart in Neil Young music first appeared on Newcastle Herald.