Going to see the greats in the twilight of their career can be a tricky business. Often you find the artist behind some of your records to be a shadow of their former selves, churning out the hits one last time or looking for one final payday to straighten out their accounts. Neil Young and the Promise of the Real’s Rebel Content tour is the antithesis of these concerts. Somehow managing to occupy both the roles of career retrospective and showcase for newer songs, this is a show that will have even the most casual Young fan going home a believer.
Excitement has been building for some time around this collaboration. It was last summer that Young first hit the road with the Promise of the Real and it didn’t take long for word to get around that this show was something special. As they ploughed a furrow through the American heartland, the crowds got bigger and the sets got longer, often stretching past the three hour mark. There’s a sense of anticipation in the crowd that something special might be in the offing.
As the lights come up, we find Young behind the piano teasing out the opening notes of ‘After the Goldrush’ and a hush falls on the arena. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Young’s voice remains as vulnerable and raw as when he laid down these tracks and looking upon him on the darkened stage with his black hat low, one could easily be back in Nashville in the early ‘70s. ‘From Hank to Hendrix’, ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Needle and the Damage Done’ quickly follow and Young has every soul in the place hanging on his hammer ons and mournful harmonica.
The Promise of the Real take to the stage after ‘Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)’ and we are alerted that we are moving into the second act of proceedings by a ritualistic fumigation of the stage. Despite the epic scale of the set, there remains a relaxed atmosphere throughout with Young and the band often joking around off mic and seemingly working out which song to launch into next (Young is said to have given the band a list of 80 songs to learn so they have to be on their toes).
‘Ohio’ and ‘Winterlong’ are warmly received, before Young sets down his acoustic guitar and calls for Old Black. It’s evident that we have dispensed with the niceties and it is going to be a heavier affair from here on in. Sure enough the solos are soon coming thick and fast. ‘Love to Burn’ is the first song we really see Young cut loose on and if anyone in attendance was questioning whether or not the 70-year-old could still shred with the best of them, then watching him put his band mates, who are more than forty years his junior, through their paces will have more than soothed those doubts.
The set is perfectly structured, building from a delicate whisper to a defiant howl. It manages to capture all that is great about Young, taking in the hits, deep tracks as well as newer material. It is a credit to the tracks from the recent The Monsanto Years that don’t sound out of place next to the more familiar entries to his great Canadian songbook with the title track in particular shining tonight.
One fan’s repeated pleas for ‘Rocking in the Free World are finally answered with a snarling version late on before an airing of ‘Love and Only Love’ finds Young testing the limits of his whammy bar and perhaps the audience’s patience. Due to the curfew, there is only time for a single song encore of ‘Fuckin’ Up’, meaning tonight’s show has come in a little shorter than some of the others on the tour, but it’s safe to say few souls in attendance are making the trip home disappointed.
The old saying goes that you can’t please all of the people all of the time and this adage has certainly proved apt on Young’s previous visits to these shores. Last time he played Dublin, many fans were left disgruntled either hoping for more of the hits or finding the raw power of Crazy Horse a little too relentless. Young proves this old adage false this time round, striking the perfect balance. There is something for everyone tonight. Pure ragged glory. Robert Higgins
Photos by Tara Thomas