Both Neil Young and The The's Matt Johnson pride themselves on their stubborn iconoclasm while alternating between troubled introspection and social commentary. At the start of the '70's, Young was briefly the voice of the counterculture, lamenting "Mother Nature on the run" from the seemingly horizontal position while occasionally working himself up for blistering attacks on the forces of reaction like "Ohio."
Matt Johnson is altogether artier in his approach and retains a streak of English self-righteousness in his diatribes that recalls other clumsy rock philosophers such as Roy Harper and Roger Waters. If Young has become increasingly uncertain of the role of his generation, Matt Johnson clearly aspires to become the voice of an era that he is struggling to invent. His recent hit, "The Beat(en) Generation," was a folksy commentary on Thatcher's depressed children but the album "Mind Bomb" aspires to a global overview.
Last week both artists set out on American tours from California, Matt Johnson fronting a band including guitarist Johnny Marr -- formerly of the Smiths -- Young sticking to acoustic instruments with a little help from his friends. Both artists are clearly fascinated with the passions and rhetoric of Middle Eastern fundamentalism, largely because both are drawn to self-certainty as it topples into hysteria.
The The opened their US versus The World tour at the Roxy on Sunset Strip and their set inevitably suffered from first-night stiffness. Johnson presented himself in a black bolero had and alternated between strumming a guitar and striding up and down the stage with a microphone, wagging a threatening finger. His loud and technically proficient band did their best to match the complexity of The The's albums, but were inevitably restricted by the accompanying backing tapes. Johnson's voice rarely rises above a deep growl and simply lacks the variety to carry his denser material live.
As for Marr, he hasn't lost his melodic invention but the tapes and his determination to escape his trademark jangle left him oddly subdued. On songs such as "Armageddon Day are Here (Again)," the band began to generate the kind of fury which suits Johnson's bleak world view but, for the most part, this was a powerful performance unleavened by either wit or enough melody.
[Rest deals with Neil Young eclusively]