Helpless: The Songs of Neil Young

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Todd Sibbin is an Adelaide music scene institution. Even impresario now, if you will. He began life as a charmingly naïve, Clapton-loving, Dylan-inspired songsmith who would regularly drop-jaws with his acoustic pickings and strummings. He has since transitioned into a prolific, music producing, music engineering, multiple album-releasing, cover-band bringing machine who attracts patrons to shady dark music holes through his name alone.

He stopped by recently to share a few beers and get gracefully loose-lipped about the show, Neil, Bob, Bright Eyes, youthful dreams and producing young talent in an increasingly stylised and manicured local music industry.

He is a fascinating and lovely guy. Incredibly easy to talk to and full of informed and erudite ideas and thoughts about performing, music and life. But he also has too many of these thoughts to properly traverse in one simple interview. So we kept it pretty clean and focussed on his new Fringe show version 2.0.

Sibbin is touring as lead Crazy-Horseist (read: guitarist) for Helpless: The Songs of Neil Young, a tribute show so popular and well-received at last year’s Adelaide Fringe, it now justifies a 5 show, 2016 regional Fringe fun run across South Australia.

Helpless is a show for the fans, played by a group of fans. In fact Todd, who is extremely well-versed in Neil Young, is nowhere near the biggest Neilite in the band. “I get to hit that fuzz peddle on and do all the crazy solos.”

The show accommodates for the two main (and those in between) facets of Neil’s career: “What we did last year, we did two sets, one real Crazy Horse, really really Crazy Horse and one quieter set. We’ve added more songs now, but the setup will probably be the same”

Sibbin is traditionally known as an intricate acoustic folkie, and if one is familiar with his music, the crazy, intense, loud, inexactness of a Neil Young guitar solo isn’t the first thing that comes mind. “I don’t learn the solos note for note. I learn the first phrasing and then just smash them out”. In identifying this requirement Sibbin is actually pretty well-matched to playing down-home, authentic Neil. “It actually really suits me. My usual style is very heavy handed and playing Crazy Horse really works for me. It’s a chance for me to be more natural. I’ve tried and practiced all my life to be less heavy handed, to use softer hands. Playing this, I get to be, more… I guess… me.”

“It’s not like Clapton and delicate. It’s stabby, so it’s actually ended up being really easy.” But this kind of statement isn’t ego from a man like Sibbin. It’s relief in a way. For a man of such undeniable talent (and hard-work has played a huge role in nurturing this talent), he’s had to deal with anxiety, both in performance and in believing in his output. “You just have to learn to deal with it, just learn to deal with it, and I feel like to a certain extent I have”.

But Sibbin isn’t the only mad talent in the show, the leader and real driving force behind it is local Adelaide singer-songwriter, Tom West. “Out of all the guys in this, I’m not the real big Neil Young fan. Tom is the big Neil Young fan.”

Don’t get me wrong. He’s still a big fan. Sibbin was able to turn around and ruin my plans to play Neil’s seminal vocoder masterpiece of an album ‘Trans’. When the idea was bandied about he knew it well. In fact, the album was a butt of dozens of jokes in rehearsals “Yeah, we make Trans jokes all the time. No we’re not playing any, but I read once that Neil actually said ‘Everyone hated that album, but I still really like it’.” On The Beach (Sibbin’s favourite album) gets an airing and shows the eclecticism of the set-list. “Walk On gets a run, and I really like that song, it’s got a funk thing to it.”

The genesis of the show came from one of their many casual conversations. “I was talking about doing a Clapton show years ago with him and it seemed like a good idea and now tribute shows have become the complete flavour of the month. There are SO many of them, but the Neil Young one REALLY took off last year.”

“His songs are f-ing hard to sing. Westie, who is one of the best singers I know and he has to work really hard to not just sound like Neil Young but sing in that high register and hold those notes.” And Neil is hard to sing, he’s got the voice of a broken quavering angel who is channelling so much death, despair and depth of emotion into his songs. If anything, the hardest thing to capture is vulnerability in a tribute show. Bombast and intensity, pretty easy. Vulnerability? Much harder. Watch the video of Cripple Creek Ferry for proof that they can do it.

“You’ve got to sing like Neil and not sound diva-ry. Westie does that.” It’s hard for Sibbin too. He sings all over the show.

But this highlights just how talented, virtuous and genuinely committed these guys are. “It’s really tempting, but we never change the key. Westie MAKES us stay in the same key. We never resort to the easy way out in this show.”

The show has different sounds and flavours too. It’s a true Neil tribute show in that way, representing the many sides of his career: “We’ve got keys too. It’s funny. You don’t think of Neil as having keyboards much outside of his solo, single stuff, but we realised about half his tunes have keys and therefore we needed to split the set between Crazy Horse rock ‘n’ roll and the quieter stuff”.

But that doesn’t mean the band is restricted to pure by rote, note-by-note reproductions. “We do try and stay as close as possible to the original as we can but we do take liberties”. And they need to. These are creative prolific songwriters and performers. You’ll get Neil, but you’ll also get character and interpretation.

Things are kept pretty tight throughout the show. Sibbin may be able to shred like a madman possessed, but they’ve favoured economy and getting as many songs as possible in the set list as they can. Therefore the high percentage of 17 minute guitar solos usually prevalent in a Neil show, aren’t as common. “There was this funny time last year, where I had already played two huge, epic solos in the one song and a small break comes and goes and I turn to Al Douglas on drums and ask “Is there another one coming up” and he just nodded his head. I sighed a bit and started playing again, thinking I’d run out of notes to play!”

But now Sibbin grasps what it is to play Neil on guitar . “Since then I’ve understood that it’s more about the sound and effect rather than the notes, and even if you’ve tapped the well of all the notes available in a 10 minute solo, you can continue to push the sound the guitar makes, just like Neil.”

Todd’s a natural songwriter, not solo maker so it’s a strange practice for him. “I can just hold one note, and smash it and bend it and distort it and it sounds just like Neil Young”. This sounds simple, but its a challenge for a guy who is accustomed to trying to find complex melodies every time he picks up a guitar.

“Neil said he never had a number one. And he didn’t”. But that’s why this show is so good. Yeah, you’ll probably here Old Man and Heart of Gold but you’ll also hear For The Turnstiles and Lookin’ For A Love and Powderfinger. Get on this. These guys know what they’re doing.

“There’s five people on stage. We’ve done it twice before and it was really cool last year. Heaps of the old guys came up to us at The Gov last year and said “My wife dragged me down here, and I’m the real Neil Young fan and I had my doubts. But you guys were f-ing great!”.

“We found it really hard last year, initially learning these songs properly. It was heaps of hard work. Now its heaps of fun. For Wesite and I, we’ve played together for a long time and it’s a hard slog being an independent singer-songwriter, but this is just such a good time”.

And that’s what makes these shows special. It’s a bunch of guys playing songs you love and they’re loving doing it.

You can catch Sibbin and Westie and their Neil wielding warriors at The Gov on Wednesday 9 March or at any one of their rural shows when they take the sucker on tour. More info here.

Wed 9 Mar  7:30 PM to 10:00 PM

The Gov

All Tix: $38.00,

By Brenden Boyce

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