On this, the Rebel Content Tour, the ageing rocker proves to be both ageless and still rebellious
As two straw hat-sporting, dungaree-wearing, grain-spreading figures scatter seeds across the O2 stage you would be forgiven for mistaking the gig for a theatrical performance of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. This precedes the entrance of the evening’s villains. Wearing hazmat suits and spraying pesticides across the stage, the serene country atmosphere is wiped by a Ghostbusters-like nightmare. Hidden beneath his black hat and a harmonica, Neil Young looks like Zorro, an environmental protagonist here to save the world from corporate greed and environmental unsustainability with his acoustic guitar.
The rock hero emerges behind a piano for After The Gold Rush. The subdued and understated solo opening enhances the environmental message of the night, as Young updates the lyrics to ‘Look at Mother Nature on the run in the twenty-first century’. This contemporary edge is soon superseded by the reminiscent audience who eagerly cheer the line ‘There was a band playing in my head, and I felt like getting high’. From Hank to Hendrix, is a beautiful number, oozing vulnerability and showcasing Young’s often overlooked vocal abilities. Heart of Gold and The Needle and the Damage Done are welcome inclusions from the 1972 masterpiece Harvest. They sound even more impressive live in 2016 than on the CD I grew up listening to in my father’s car.
Young caps off this solo opening with Mother Earth (Natural Anthem). Hunched over a battered organ, with a single candle illuminating the old rocker, he resembles a maniacal musical genius conducting mass. Considering his recent live release Earth and the same title emblazoned on his t-shirt, we are under no illusions that Young is still fighting overtly for the environmental cause. Mother Earth’s conclusion exacerbates this:
‘Respect Mother Earth and her giving ways Or trade away our children’s days.’
The gig really shifts up a gear when Young exchanges his acoustic guitar for his trusted electronic weapon ‘Old Black’ and his band Promise of the Real are introduced. The subdued, understated opening descends into a frenzy of feedback and crunching guitar sounds, showcasing his accreditation as the godfather of grunge. Most notably Alabama and Words (Behind the Lines of Age) still sound as bitter and venomous as on record, almost 45 years on from Harvest. Even On the Beach’s Revolution Blues is dusted off and Walk On is a jovial experience.
A mention must go to Promise of the Real, in place of the ageing Crazy Horse. Including Lukas and Micah Nelson (sons of Willie) they look like excitable children who had won a competition to play alongside their hero. Young to’s-and-fro’s with Lukas, engaging in a sonic, solo duel in constant attempts to out-do one-another, although Young always reigns supreme. This exemplifies the unpredictable nature of the night, as well as the authoritative dominance of the 70-year old, as his band constantly fight to respond to his cues and his lead. Having recorded and released The Monsanto Years with Promise of the Real, it comes as a surprise to only hear one song from the album, that being the self-titled single. This is somewhat a relief after a Bristol audience was subject to hearing the entirety of the then-unreleased Tonight’s the Night, four times over in 1973. It is safe to say that Young’s songwriting hasn’t gotten any less confrontational, however:
‘Every year he buys the patented seeds Poison-ready they’re what the corporation needs, Monsanto When you shop for your daily bread and walk the aisles of Safeway, Safeway.’
The rocker attempting to tackle his vendetta against Safeway.
There is a notable lack of Zuma, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and Rust Never Sleeps, though with 36 studio albums to his name, it is inevitable that some albums will be overlooked. One album that is well-showcased is his and Crazy Horse’s excellent 1990 effort Ragged Glory. This is not just because Young concludes with a 30 minute Love and Only Love from the aforementioned album. While at first encapsulating, compelling and hypnotic, twenty minutes in it seems as though Young has forgotten he’s performing to a crowd, and instead serving his own boredom, or rather his ego.
F*!#in’ Up provides the youthful encore, bringing the 2 and a half hour barnstorming set to a close. For one last time the three guitarists and bassist gather in the centre of the stage in attempts to impress one another, as they had all night. Their musical chemistry is clear. By the end Neil Young is hard to distinguish as the old crony, as the band engage in a food fight, aiming cherries at each other and into the crowd. Promise of the Real not only sufficiently support Young musically, but they bring the 70-year olds’ youth back out of him. Tonight proves that Neil Young is not just an ailing rocker and that he still has a thing or two to teach today’s youth about how to rock out.