(photo: Paul Bowman)
Neil Young! Bucket list gig. I have been loving Neil Young since 1978. My friend Rab nicked Zuma and American Stars ’N Bars from his sister’s ex boyfriend and two teenage boys were off on their Young adventure. That adventure has taken a few forks in the road but it is always Neil Young.
That he was in Belfast meant it had to be done. A first live gig from an artist I had loved for almost 40 years. BUT… which Neil would turn up? If it’s a one Neil gig in a lifetime then will it live up to the legend. The jury was out. The latest record, The Monsanto Years, was loud. There have been gigs almost entirely of feedback. Arc is always in the back of the mind!
A glance at the recent Glasgow set list was pre-gig encouraging. When Young sat down at the piano and started After The Gold Rush I left behind any lingerings fears and for the next 3 hours basked. Truthfully if he’d left the stage after that first song I’d have been a happy boy. Three hours later and I was exhilarated. Even now the next day I am living in the after glow.
The first thing that struck me three lines in to After The Gold Rush was that his voice is strong. We have a lot of ageing rock heroes these days and the voice is always a concern, Neil Young obviously has his own version of voice, one that I have loved, and it was strong.
The acoustic set was crowd pleasing to say the least with Heart of Gold, Needle and The Damage Done and Comes A Time all ringing up frayed and flared denim days.
Mother Earth (Natural Anthem) was the first of many times tonight that I was awakened to songs in my collection that I had not paid enough, if any, attention too. Neil sits down at a pump organ, a miniature of any old Presbyterian organ pipes and all with candles either side (ok that makes it ecumenical!!!) and starts the tune of When I Survey The Wondrous Cross. Mother Earth is a hymn and it sounded sacred and beautiful.
That earth theme was a thread throughout. From “mother nature’s on the run in the twenty first century” of After The Goldrush through Mother Earth to Seed Justice and After The Garden Neil Young was fighting for The Earth. It was even written across his t-shirt. It was a pioneering concern in the early 70s. It is now a planet crisis. Young is doing his bit!
Six songs in and Young is joined by Promise of the Real fronted by Lukas and Micah Nelson, sons of Willie! Well, what a revelation! The recent record they made with with Young, Monsanto Years which was represented here by Rules For Change was rough and loose but tonight was anything but. These boys can play. It was like they took 40 years off Young’s age and then dragged some of Young’s best songs 40 years down the road and made them absolutely contemporary and crucial in 2016.
It was the harmonies that shone first. On Hold Back The Tears, one of my personal favourite young songs, it was like The Eagles had taken Linda Ronstadt’s part. Then the musicianship kicked in and the guitar playing was mesmerising. The drumming subtle both in its whack and its gentle touch. The energy these guys gave a 70 year old legend was palpable.
The revelation for me was when the guitars turned up and the solos began to stretch out. This was what I was still basking in a day later. I expected to take the noise to love the acoustic but actually it was songs I hadn’t taken enough time over for thirty years that really connected. Country Home, Mansion On The Hill and Love and Only Love from Ragged Glory were utterly glorious. Again it was the subtlety beneath the noise that sneaked through to my soul. the guitar trade offs were long for sure but the precision and beauty surprised me. Some of this elongated crescendo finishes were somehow gentle and powerful all at once. I don’t think i ever heard anything quite like it!
So the fear about the set list? There should have been no fear. Indeed I wonder if this was as good a Neil Young gig as there had been in a while. He did three full hours and from checking through set lists it looks about 25 minutes and a few songs longer than anything else he has done recently. We got Down By The River and Vampire Blues, even Buffalo Springfield’s Mr Soul. Yes, it might have been 70s heavy in song choice but no one was complaining. It was well loved songs without the obvious hits.
If you had told me that I would come away from a Neil Young gig and play Weld on the school run the next morning I’d have laughed. So laughing I am. It was so much better than a bucket list tick and so much better than I ever imagined. It was utterly sublime. It was Neil Young and The Promise of the Real. The promise was fulfilled!