Sunday, 12 June 2016

Neil Young and Promise of the Real - Canadian Icon Still Got a Heart of Gold - First Direct Arena, Leeds, 10.06.16

“Fuck you, Donald Trump!” hollers Neil Young from under the brim of his weathered old hat, spittle flying, as chaotic bolts of feedback abruptly shift into the thundering riff of Rockin’ in the Free World. After fifty years in the business, he could be forgiven for taking a more comfortable, sedate route into retirement – but he remains a man who will not go quietly into the night. Around him, several men far younger than the grizzled septuagenarian throw themselves around with a musical bravado, though dressed in pink shirts and cowboy hats paints the unusual image of a barnyard-bro-down, with added six-string electrification.

This show – Young’s debut performance at the First Direct Arena in Leeds – forms part of his Rebel Content Tour, the first with current cohort, Promise of the Real. A five-piece consisting of guitarist brothers Lukas and Micah, sons of musical legend Willie Nelson, plus bass, drums and percussion, they hail from sunny California, a rather sharp contrast to the wintered Young’s Canadian upbringing. Their sound is tinged with the tightly-packed harmonics of the Eagles, and loosened by the jam-band virtuosity of the Grateful Dead; like Young himself, they straddle a fine line between country, folk and good old fashioned rock, custodians of a laid back groove that can turn feral at the drop of a hat.
Neil Young, live at the SSE Hydro, Glasgow, in 2016.
(Courtesy of The Guardian)
The two joined forces for last year’s The Monsanto Years, a sprawling slice of agri-rock that took aim at large corporations such as Starbucks for unethical and environmentally damaging practices. It’s on-the-nose and to the point; Young has rarely been one to mince his words when it comes his save-the-planet beliefs, and his unwavering support for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders reflects his political alignment to a tee. It’s surprising, then, that he plucks only a single cut from it over a near-three-hour show, that instead serves almost as a retrospective of the musician’s distinct eras; Young the hippie-folk balladeer, Young the country-tinged bandleader and Young the noise merchant and architect of grunge.

As such, an opening section, bookended by atypically theatrical skits featuring farmers planting seeds and crops being ruined with pesticides on stage, sees Young alone onstage, delivering a vulnerably naked and raw clutch of classic songs on piano, acoustic guitar and harmonica. After the Gold Rush and Heart of Gold are both spine-tinglingly beautiful, whilst the cautionary tale of The Needle and the Damage Done still paints a vivid image several decades on. Young’s voice is weathered, and slightly fragile, but he still possesses the range of his prime, and the power to go with it; a pump-organ-led rendition of Mother Earth (Natural Anthem) is near-cathartic and barely twenty minutes have passed.
Neil Young and Promise of the Real, live at the Xfinity
Center, Mansfield, MA, in 2015. (Courtesy of Relix)
The shift in atmosphere is palpable when Promise of the Real initially join Young on stage. They play mid-tempo soft rock, like the West Coast-tinged Out On the Weekend, before progressively tightening their sound for a clutch of blues-licked ballads, with Winterlong a yearning highlight. But there remains a tightly coiled anger under their musicianship – when Young introduces the ultra-rare If I Could Have Her Tonight, played for the first time since 1968, there is the hint of a spark waiting to ignite.

It explodes shortly after, when the band let loose with a twenty-two minute rendition of Down by The River, a magnificent hard psych-rock wig-out that boils out in revolutionary violence. It, and the subsequent Powderfinger and Cowgirl in the Sand, are electrifying, showcasing the brilliance of Young as a guitar virtuoso and demonstrating that even in the shadow of Crazy Horse, Promise of the Real can cut it. After forty-five minutes of proto-grunge destruction, the set suffers from over-indulgence late on – the tight Mansion on the Hill is followed by one extended jam too many that elongates Love to Burn to fifteen minutes too long – but the ferocious Rockin’ in the Free World closes out the main set with a short, sharp shock. One curfew-breaking encore of When You Dance, I Can Really Love and Fuckin’ Up follow, before Young bows to the ground, a content smile gracing his aged features. Fifty years on, the anger is still there – but so is the skill and Young doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon.

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