SSE Hydro, Glasgow
In an increasingly rousing show, the grizzled cat in the hat spans five decades with thunderous, heartfelt pleas to save the planet
Monday 6 June 2016
After recent dalliances with combusting custom converted electric cars and less than highly praised high-fidelity music players, Neil Young is back on firmer and more familiar ground with his anti-agribusiness concept album The Monsanto Years.
“Look at Mother Nature on the run, in the 21st century,” sings the grizzled dude hunched over a beat-up old upright piano in a black fedora hat and T-shirt emblazoned “EARTH”, as he contemporises a lyric from 1970’s still miraculous sounding After the Gold Rush to roars of approval from the crowd. (The line “I felt like getting high” also gets its own telling ovation.) The 70-year-old Canadian folk, country and rock icon was writing about the embattled natural world long before most people had even heard of their carbon footprint.
In an atypically theatrical start to proceedings, two men dressed like poor farm hands scatter seeds across the stage, ahead of a lassoing opening solo acoustic segment that includes Heart of Gold, still powerful anti-heroin anthem The Needle and the Damage Done and, performed on a wheezing church organ, Mother Earth (Natural Anthem). After a time, as the young bucks from Promise of the Real emerge – Young’s latest backing group and collaborators, a five-piece Californian jam band featuring Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah (the former rocks a kilt) – men in hazmat suits pretend-spray pesticides about their feet.
GM foods, corporate greed and America’s busted rural economy are clearly on Young’s mind at the moment, although strangely he largely eschews songs from The Monsanto Years, save for the inclusion towards the end of weary country love song to a wounded planet Wolf Moon, and the record’s supermarkets-spearing title track. (Its low choral drawls of “at Saaaafeway” sound like the most dissuasive advertising jingle ever penned.) But no matter, considering the diverse and career-spanning array of songwriting riches otherwise disbursed over two-and-half hours.
They’re arranged roughly on an increasing scale of heaviosity, from the harmonica-licked rootsy likes of Out on the Weekend and Unknown Legend through to a handful of Crazy Horse numbers starting with a sludgy-rousing Down By the River that lasts nearly 20 minutes by the time its droning strains finally fade. Promise of the Real prove very able accomplices, whether hitting levitational multi-part chorus harmonies, or clustering around their esteemed patron for a feedback-whacked guitar solos tossing wig-out.
Enjoyment of the show’s final act is substantially contingent on an appreciation of protracted instrumentals, but whether you’re a fan of long-form cosmic gnarl or not, you’ve got to agree that nobody does it quite like Young. Come a 15-minute Love and Only Love he’s lost in his own fretboard in front of 13,000 people, deafeningly coaxing out the final chord longer than entire songs had lasted in the show’s opening phase. After that it’s approving dad hugs all round for the band, and a short time later, a curfew-busting encore of Fuckin’ Up – a tractor-strength reminder why every generation that values howling riffs and angry dissent will find inspiration in Young’s evergreen natural anthems.
• Neil Young and Promise of the Real play SSE Arena, Belfast (028 9073 9074) 7 June; First Direct Arena, Leeds (0844 248 1585), 10 June; O2 Arena, London (0844 856 0202), 11 June.