There are not many of these old folk rebels left that could fill a venue as large as this. Of the few that do still tour, you have to question what drives them now, so many years from their heyday. Is it the money, the desire to entertain or the need to play out clung-to dreams of relevancy and celebrity?
For Neil Young, 70 and back on the road with a new tour and a brand new backing band, these reasons may come into play, but there is another motivator pushing him to bring his music to the masses. Neil Young has something to say, and he’s not going to shut up until we all hear it.
That ‘something’ is loud and present from the very beginning of the night, from the stage decorated with Native American statues and plants to the bizarre spectacle of people dressed as farmers ‘sowing’ seeds across the stage. A heavy-handed message perhaps, but Young is not here to be subtle. He is ostensibly here promoting newest album ‘The Monsanto Years’, although it barely gets an airing this evening. The title refers to the multinational that hit headlines for its anti-environmental products and aggressive business practices. Young, it is fair to say, is not a fan. This latest offering follows a line of increasingly political and environmentally-conscious albums. Never a stranger to an outspoken word, Young shows no signs of mellowing out in his old age.
Yet if tonight’s attendees had concerns that the pursuit of message meant there wouldn’t be a familiar song in sight, then their fears were unfounded. As the last agricultural-actor made their way offstage, a spotlight lit a single, black-clothed figure bent over a piano and the opening chords of ‘After The Goldrush’ rang out. The voice, unique as ever, perhaps wavered more than in previous years, but that incredible range and intonation was retained. Young’s piano-playing was, if anything, markedly more effortless and delicate than the recorded version. His adaption of lyrics to ‘look at Mother Nature on the run, in the 21st-centuary’ was in-keeping with the evening’s theme and raised a cheer (although, in true Glasgow fashion, ‘and I felt like getting high’ gained an even bigger one).
From there, it was a Neil Young dream come true. Donning a guitar, Young gave ‘Heart Of Gold’, ‘Comes A Time’, and ‘Needle And The Damage Done’ in quick succession before making his way to the organ for ‘Mother Earth’ – his passionate and emotional hymn to a damaged world. Barely a word was spoken in between – Young was not here to exchange pleasantries. He was set on taking his audience somewhere, and in his typically uncompromising fashion, they were simply to keep up or risk being left behind.
Along with his firmly-established message of environmentalism and anti-capitalism, another, more subtle theme emerged from his song choices. Over the night, references to time and age appeared frequently. ‘I saw an old man walking in my place’, sang Young in ‘Mansion On The Hill’, an anthem to times long-passed. But despite his focus on the movement of time, Young refused to lapse into nostalgia. By this point in the proceedings he had been joined by his band du jour, Promise Of The Real, (featuring two of Willie Nelson’s sons). The energy emanating from these younger musicians was more than matched by their senior master, and the combined effort was a gritty and grungy performance that was as far from stagnation as imaginable. Classics like ‘Down By The River’ were rounded off with 10-minute outros of unrelenting feedback and massive chords. The band provided backing vocals that, while not quite CSNY standard of harmony, were most definitely Neil Young canon. Their confidence and excellent musicianship provided the baseline for Young’s aggressive playing style, as he and his long time musical-companion, beloved ‘Old Black’, delivered an electrifying, politically-charged version of ‘Alabama’. Easy listening, this was not. But it was unbelievably captivating.
And how to round off a night like that, a night of music so fierce and fervent that you leave with it imprinted on your soul? The hecklers had the answers: “’Keep On Rocking!’”, roared one. “‘Helpless!’”, yelled another. “It’s got to be ‘Hurricane’”, said my dad beside me. In the end they were all wrong. The band came back on stage, Old Black screamed into action and Neil Young howled those immortal words: “Why do I keep f***in’ up?” At 70, Mr Young is not about to start playing by the rules.
This Neil Young article was written by Josie Gaitens, a GIGsoup contributor. Photo credit : evaze