As two women, garbed in traditional farm-like clothing, throw seeds around the stage in keeping with Neil Young’s latest anti-agribusiness album, the man himself struts onstage in darkness with the lighting technician seemingly half-dosing and failing to pick up on his entrance until he’s already sat at the piano and launching himself straight into “After the Gold Rush”.
After flitting to the right to illuminate the empty organ, and then doubling back to the left to light up the piano, there we find Mr. Young, hat bent low and covering his face, timely opening with the songs first lines to huge roars of approval. No introduction, no frills, no messing about.
“Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century” he sings, effortlessly and poignantly blending the old and new which is exactly what this new iteration of Neil Young seems to be all about.
From one classic hit to another, he then gets up, walks to the centre, grabs one of his guitars and goes into “Heart of Gold”. God knows he has enough hits to keep this up for a long time and nobody was complaining but I felt a certain urgency to this opening chapter, a “let’s get this over with” attitude that only relaxed after a peaceful “Comes a Time”, continuing the eco vibes, the ever-emotional “The Needle and the Damage Done” and a slow stirring “Mother Earth” on the organ changed the pace and rounded out his solo opening set.
Then came the serious business. In other words, the Promise of the Real.
As gas-masked pesticide-spraying figures stalked across the stage for the final theatrics of the night, some young-looking boys also confidently strode onstage and got comfortable behind their instruments. This was and has been his latest backing band for a while and is comprised and fronted by Lukas Nelson, none other than one of Willie Nelson’s sons, with his brother Micah also joining them for this tour.
They started things off nice and easy with “From Hank to Hendrix” followed by a lovely “Out on the Weekend” as they eased into their stride. Gone was the urgency, replaced by a thorough and palpable enjoyment, from the part of the artists as well as the public. It was such a wonderful sight seeing a timeless relic of a generation past casually and pleasantly sharing the stage with these respectful and fully mindful youngsters – despite their family’s pedigree.
The bond was clear for all to see as he turned towards them to ask them if they had any ideas for the next song and they exhumed a wonderful togetherness in their playing that made it feel like they’d been at it for years! Neil’s voice still had all its youthful sweetness to it and his harmonica playing was as effortless as I’d always imagined it as “Unknown Legend” went into “Wolf Moon”.
The first sign of the magic came when Neil picked up an electric guitar for the brooding “Words” and started jamming and soloing the way only he can. The scene seemed to change just a little bit, gentle ease of the past songs shifting to a quiet and serious concentration to fit the songs’ mood, and Neil took centre stage with the young band members ever so slightly tilted in his general direction to follow his lead. We had our first (of many) trios and interchanges with Lukas getting in on the solo act, whilst they bounced in unison the rhythm as the song maintained its anxious intensity.
There was a newfound and more profound strength to their sound thereafter, as if “Words” had shown us exactly what they were all about and capable of. After a warm and united “Winterlong”, we were treated to a rare performance of “If I Could Have her Tonight” before a buoyant “Walk On”.
Then came the thunder.
It all started with a paltry 20 minute “Down by the River” (TWENTY!). I remember wondering how long the song had been going on for, unable to grasp the notion of time in the barrage of triple wailing guitar solos swirling around my dazed and amazed mind. I’ll not attempt to break the song down for you, but one of their numerous jamming sessions culminated in one of my favourite moments in live music when Lukas Nelson, obviously unable to bear the hindering weight of his cowboy hat in the wake of the unrestrained explosion that was to place, in all of a second and single motion, stopped his playing, raised his arm, grabbed his hat and chucked it to the floor to rid himself of this cumbersome burden and allow himself full freedom and flow to headbang and rock’n’roll in the explosive fury that was emanating from this fearsome foursome. All four axe-wielders huddled close, swaying to the rhythm whilst interchanging solos: simply and purely rocking out.
And then the storm subsided just as quickly as it rose, but the ante remained, higher than before. And the groove goes on, the calm is an illusion and we’re in for another round. Until before you know it, Neil’s back on the mic, reminding you that this is an actual song, with lyrics and not just a jam and it’s not the Grateful Dead, although on such evidence, one might be forgiven for thinking as much. “Be on my side” he sings: as if there were ever any doubt.
Unsure of what was to follow and by now not really minding, we were allowed some respite, a single song of it, in the form of “Powderfinger”, which gave us time to reflect on what had just happened and relax and drift back down to Earth with its light fun vibes.
Then it was on again for another epic jamming session with a 12 minute “Cowgirl in the Sand”, picking up where “Down by the River” left off with solos galore, each guitarist with his own style and sound, capped by a blistering solo from Lukas, as the band’s synergy shone in their collective playing, as if they were in some run-down garage in the middle of nowhere and not being watched and worshipped by 13 000 pair of eyes. It was the most wonderful sight to see, these musicians from different eras and generations not just sharing the stage but revelling in it and in their harmony.
Both Nelson brothers have to be commended for their assured and gratifying performances: bandleader Lukas as the effervescent and searing of the two guitarists and Micah as the jack of all trades, switching from piano to guitar, playing with feedback and generally taking a subtle backseat, with his demeanour and style reminiscent of Radiohead’s brooding genius Johnny Greenwood – as opposed to his brother’s more flamboyant Stevie Ray Vaughan style.
Equal special mention should also go out to the other band members: bassist Corey McCormick who did not stop hopping or smiling the entire gig, cap on head, grooving to the whole bonanza, and to drummer Anthony Logerfo who kept the whole thing going, even during two 20 minute songs, letting the guitars work their jamming prowess and solo magic to the overwhelmed crowd. Oh, and their percussion and conga guy as well, Tato Melgar, solid grooves.
A driving “Mansion on the Hill” came next before a 12 minute “Love to Burn” that sizzled just as much as its title implies. By now, Neil was making light of his age and proving his surname to be true, and the satiated crowd were cruising along with the band to their awe-inspiring ride. What was left was a rousing rendition of the timeless and massive favourite “Rockin’ in the Free World” – complete with a “Fuck Donald Trump” bonus line to a huge roars of approval. As the song blasted and bombed its way forward like the call to arms it is, Lukas urged the crowd to clap along before joining in the onstage antics once more: I can hardly think of a song that rocks as hard as this one does live.
All that was left was for a two song encore of the sweet “When You Dance, I Can Really Love” before properly finishing with the eponymously erroneous “Fuckin’ Up” with its urgent rush and decisive tone belying the recurring “why do I keep fuckin’ up?” refrain and oxymoronically leaving the audience feeling all the more fulfilled.
This was an absolutely breath-taking and mesmerising performance from one of music’s most enduring rock legends, still going more than strong at the tender age of 70, and keeping pace – if not out-rocking them – with his youthful backing band with whom he shares a palpable and refreshing bond, a mixture of respect and admiration.
As I ran full tilt to the train station so as to not miss the last train home, I could not wipe that smile off my face as I marvelled at the 2 hour and 45 minute virtuoso masterpiece I had just been privy to: well played Neil Young, well played.
(First Direct Arena, 10th of June 2016, Leeds, U.K.)