Live Reviews - Reviews

Neil Young and Promise of the Real @ SSE Arena, Belfast


“If you’re here writing a newspaper piece or something, please try to ignore that…”

So remarks 70-year-old Neil Young, quite possibly the coolest man on earth, a handful of songs into a career-spanning, increasingly rapturous set with Promise of the Real at Belfast’s downright reverential SSE Arena tonight. In typically unflustered fashion, he’s just stopped a few seconds into the intro of ‘Harvest Moon’ having neglected to attach his harmonica; a rare blip that not only serves as a brief reminder that even the greatest have their moments of infinitesimal fallibility but also that we’re in the presence of a master who – briefly setting aside his towering legacy for a brief second – seems every little bit as grounded as ever. “Of course, not that there are many newspapers around anymore…”

Having released his anti-GM food concept album The Monsanto Years with POTR last year (a well-received effort of rejuvenated, urgent literalism) tonight’s show commences with two people dressed as poor farm hands scattering seeds across the SSE stage. “That’s a bit naff, isn’t it?” someone instantly dismisses nearby, completely missing the point. Wisely opting for an unobtrusive precursory statement over melty visuals, blitzkrieg footage or long-winded speeches, Young clearly knows his audience. Where, say, Morrissey preaches to his choir with harrowing abattoir footage during ‘Meat is Murder’, Young recognises that the music – and a couple of introductory motifs – is enough to fully drive the point home. But it’s Young and Promise of the Real’s extraordinary balance and emphatic delivery of frisson-heavy nostalgia and the vital Zeitgeist that ensures tonight is a show that burrows deep, proving simultaneously (and occasionally intensely) throwback and crucially current.

With the rather literal seed sown, Young emerges solo and starts with perfectly elegiac 1970 classic ‘After The Gold Rush’, cloaked in near-darkness stage-right. “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st Century“, he urges, re-framing the line to a wave of knowing applause. Taking up the acoustic on quintessential Seventies triptych ‘Heart of Gold’, ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ and ‘Comes a Time’ in quick succession, we’re thrust into collective, “pinch-yourself” chimera. Close your eyes and the ever-fading interim 40 odd years have not fled; Young delivers each song with remarkable verity and clarity, his only slightly timeworn voice and delivery offering something that youth nor heyday ever could.


Led by guitarist Lukas Nelson – son of Willie, no less – Promise of the Real soon appear, channelling all shades of Crazy Horse-levels of rocking mastery and alchemical, jam-heavy instinct. If Young’s early solo numbers tonight jerk the odd tear and entertain the powerful sway of timeless sentiment, tonight’s full-band set is where the sheer, momentous sense of occasion comes into sharp focus. From ‘Walk On’ and ‘Alabama’ to ‘Out On The Weekend’ and ‘Words (Between The Lines of Age)’, each of the six players on stage are a unit of perfect, compelling synchronicity. Solos of every ilk abound, four-part harmonies prove faultless and Young, roaming the stage – black hat and ‘EARTH‘ shirt donned – is an ageless conquistador with every iota of musicianship and magnetism as imaginable.

“Tech report…” Young starts, early on. “I’ve noticed someone of you taking photos with flash. Just so you know – and I don’t mind at all – that won’t help at all. It’ll look like a photo taking at the very back of a football game. Unless, there’s a woman with blue hair in front of you or something, and the flash creates a kind of blue haze in front of you. But I don’t mind. Just saying. There’ll be no more tech reports.” Dry as you like, Young has the crowd in hysterics – his delivery, every bit as impeccable as his playing, adds yet another dimension to tonight’s show. Following ‘After a Garden’, he stops and says, “Alright! Nice to see you guys. Hey, I just realised you’re all there. That’s great.” Pointing to someone in the front row, he continues: “Wow, yeah… you’ve got a shirt there with my face on it. Man… just imagine you walked in here and I had a picture of you on my shirt. That would blow your mind.”

With a masterfully loose, 22 minute, standing ovation-worthy rendition of ‘Down By The River’, ‘Vampire Blues’ and ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’ proving mid-to-late set highlights, a slick flow between old and new, allegorical and unequivocal, reflective and jubilant yields regular surprises, each peak and cunning trough orchestrated with an almost ecstatic togetherness. Bowing out on ‘Mr. Soul’ (first recorded by Buffalo Springfield), Crazy Horse gems ‘Mansion on the Hill’ and ‘Love and Only Love’ (with its incredible, all but sorcerous and Swans-like ending), a one-track encore of ‘Roll Another Number (For The Road)’ seals the deal on a three-hour, 24-song set that also sees airings of NY+POTR cuts ‘Monsanto Years’ and the unreleased ‘Seed Justice’. “Thank you, folks,” Young offers, bearing that unmistakable grin. “See you down the road somewhere.” Whilst it’s perhaps all too easy to jerk the old knee and profess any outing from a bona fide legend as something truly special, tonight’s show is just that. True genius never fades. Brian Coney

Photos by Alan Maguire

is the editor of The Thin Air. Talk to him about Philip Glass and/or follow him on Twitter @brianconey.