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From the Country Standard Time Archives

Neil Halstead rewards his audience

The Knitting Factory, West Hollywood, Cal., April 5, 2002

By Dan MacIntosh

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - Through about the first four songs of Neil Halstead's set, he appeared to be in quite the jolly mood. The Englishman joked about forgetting to return a rented video before leaving on this American tour, and how he would need to have a friend break into his house back home and return it. Then he sang "Martha's Mantra," from his solo "Sleeping On Roads" album, and told a funny story about the time his TM friend gave away her mantra - which is a meditation no-no. But here is where all the lighthearted talk ended, and his serious singer/songwriter persona took over.

From this point forward, Halstead had tonight's packed house hushed in rapt attention.

Halstead deserves credit for never allowing his rock approaches to gather any moss, as he's covered both shoegazing (Slowdive) and indie pop (Mojave 3) with his previous band incarnations.

But as a solo performer, he straddles the line between Neil Young (especially when he blows his harmonica) and Nick Drake, due mainly to his English accent and finger-picking guitar style. It was only when a pedal steel guitarist joined in, however, that these folk/rock sounds started to veer toward anything like country music. Such touches gave his songs a lonesome and faraway feel.

His sincere and introspective songs, such as "Hi-Lo And Inbetween" and "High Hopes" from the new album, ultimately rewarded this audience for paying him such close attention. And heck, with his disheveled hair and shy smile, he even looked like a young Neil Young as he centered in on his lyrical targets.

Sid Hillman opened the show with only his fragile voice and an electric Gibson to guide him. His songs are both personal ("Our July") and philosophical ("Silver's More Pretty Than Gold"), but they all started to run together into one mope-y musical soup after a while. It was unintentionally funny when Hillman pre-announced Los Lobos' Spanish "La Pistola y El Corazon" as a rare cover song, only to have him transform this usually upbeat number into one more somber dirge, just like all the rest of his originals.