Neil Young + Promise of the Real with Band of Horses. Red Rocks. 07.08.15
The night air could take a bite out of your exposed skin if you weren’t dressed properly, but the sky above was perfectly clear. Neil Young and his latest band had been on the stage at Red Rocks for close to three hours and they were closing out the main set with a version of “Love and Only Love” that saw Promise of the Real doing an entirely believable Crazy Horse impression. Everything had been brought full-circle as they performed that song. It was the one that really brought me around to Neil Young when he performed it with Billy Talbot, Frank Sampedro and Ralph Molina on that very stage back in 2012. Young was coming to the end of another intense (if somewhat uneven) set that spanned decades of music, so closing it out with the same song that he opened with last time was nothing less than perfect. It was another one of those Red Rocks moments that will not soon be forgotten. But it wasn’t an easy road. Those of us who were still in attendance were being rewarded for our efforts earlier in the evening.
Ideal conditions have been nonexistent in Morrison this year, so it was no surprise when the clouds made themselves at home on Wednesday night. Red Rocks was wrapped in a thick layer of fog as the faithful setup shop for some tailgating in the mud. As the evening mist turned into full-on flood conditions, red rivers cut paths through the park. It didn’t seem like your average mid-summer storm either. The dropping temperature made it literally feel like winter was right around the corner. Coloradans are used to dealing with the elements at Red Rocks, and most tourists are willing to put up with quite a bit of discomfort (having traveled for the show), but there are times when you would have be insane not to question the decision to stand around as nature has its way with you. Especially when the weather radar confirms that you are completely surrounded by severe rain that shows no signs of retreating. But the language on the tickets is not up for debate — RAIN OR SHINE. Find shelter…run for your car…drive away. You are free to leave anytime you like, but you can kiss that money goodbye. So for those who spent $150+ per ticket to see Neil Young + Promise of the Real, the decision to stick around was really no decision at all.
Money wasn’t a factor for me. I was one of the lucky ones who received comp’d tickets to a show that didn’t sell out. I’m not sure if it was the high tickets prices, the weather, or all the negative reviews of the new album, but Neil Young probably would have done better to book a single show. There just weren’t 18,000 people willing to fork out that kind of money this time around. Their loss ended up being my gain. I wasn’t a huge Neil Young fan until I witnessed him completely level Red Rocks with Crazy Horse at the show in 2012. That performance really changed my mind about the man and his music, so I wasn’t going to let weather (and an awful new album) keep me from accepting a free pair of tickets to see the legendary artist perform the legendary venue once again. Especially with Band of Horses opening the show.
Band of Horses found themselves standing in puddles as they looked out at a sea of umbrellas and colorful rain coats. Ben Bridwell was exaggerating when he sang “it’s coming down outside like I’ve never even seen before” – being from Seattle, he’s experienced his fair share of summer showers, but the lyrics hit a nerve among the Colorado natives who felt like they had been living in the Pac Northwest lately. Being a huge fan of their debut album, Everything All the Time, I’ve been a little disappointed in their most recent material, so it was a bummer that “The Great Salt Lake” was the only song from that album. But “Cigarettes, Wedding Bands”, “Ode to LRC” and “Is There a Ghost” reminded me how good Cease to Begin really was. I still can’t believe they didn’t do “The Funeral”, but a cover of “Am I A Good Man”, and the raw energy they brought to the song, almost erased the sheets of rain I was watching them through. As an opening act, they did their job well. I just hope they are able to channel some of that live energy into their next release.
The storm had cleared by the time the women in straw hats and denim shorts came out to pepper the stage with seeds. Planting crops and watering dandelions, the farmer’s daughters represented the victims in Neil Young’s new manifesto against Monsanto. It was a unique way to start a show, but it did make me a little nervous. The new album is terrible. And I was really hoping that the show would not focus too much on Young’s latest protest. My fears were put to rest when he followed the girls onto the stage to perform a five song solo set. As he sat up there in the dark, all alone, and sang “After The Goldrush”, I was reminded that Neil Young really hasn’t strayed too far from his original message. “Look at Mother Nature on the run, in the 21st century”. The words have been updated since the seventies, but the meaning had not. That classic song led into “Heart of Gold”, “Long May You Run” and “Old Man”, as he made his way from the acoustic guitar to the organ. “Driving to Denver from Milkwaukee we saw a lot of beautiful land…and deserted farmland”, he told the crowd, once again blaming the chemicals produced by Monsanto, before performing a natural anthem for “Mother Earth”. His opening selection of songs tied perfectly into the theme of his new album, but they also exposed just how far off track he had gone in recent years. “Mother nature on the run” just sounds so much better than “want a cup of coffee, but I don’t want a GMO.” He’s always written protest songs, but they also contained poetry. He didn’t have to name-drop big corporations to get his message across when he wrote those songs. And he didn’t need men in hazmat suits to come out and spray the audience with faux poisoning before introducing his band when he toured those albums.
The main set, featuring Willie Nelson’s sons and their band, Promise of the Real, started strong with selections from the seventies. “Hold Back the Tears”, “Out on the Weekend”, “Peace of Mind” and “Field of Opportunity” showcased the immense talent on the stage. Young kept his head down through most of the set, focusing on the various instruments he held in his hands, only looking up occasionally to expose the many years written across his face. We were a good ten songs into the set without a single selection from The Monsanto Years, but we all knew that wasn’t going to last. “You always take a chance when you write a new song. Some might not like it. They might think it has a disease. This song was dismissed as another song about the moon.” Obviously he’d read the reviews, but “Wolf Moon”’s biggest crime was being slightly boring, so when he followed it with “Harvest Moon” — “they said it about this one as well” — you couldn’t help but laugh at his self-awareness.
The electric guitar came out for “Words (Between The Lines of Age)” and then the time machine was calibrated to 1966 for Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong”. When the band came back around to Monstano, I was surprised by how good “People Want To Hear About Love” and “A New Day For Love” sounded live. Promise of the Real became much more animated as they dug into the material they had a hand in creating. The corporate name-dropping was easy to ignore as Young joined the Nelsons center stage for a crunchy jam session that led seamlessly into one of the highlights of the night, Crazy Horse’s “Cowgirl in the Sand”. For someone who doesn’t appreciate jam bands, I could have listened to that song played over and over again. They cashed in some of that goodwill by performing “Big Box” and “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop” back-to-back. But once again, Young’s mastery of the electric guitar, paired with the competence of Promise of the Real, made the unimaginative lyrics a little more digestible.
The people who left during the Starbuck song were justified, but they did themselves a great disservice. Sure, there were a few more duds still to come, but “White Line” and “Love and Only Love” were worth getting through them. Most of the new material translated much better in a live setting as well. There was an exception though. The title track, “Monsanto Years”, is just a terrible song. The fact that a poet like Neil Young could write something that would be annoying as a Facebook post, much less a song, makes me wonder if he hasn’t lost his songwriting skills. The man is 69-years-old, and although he proved that he can still sing and play the hell out of a guitar, harmonizing the word Monsanto (“Monnnnnn-sannnnnn-toooooooo“) and dropping GMOs into a song is just lazy. I don’t care what your politics are…it’s just not good music. He literally looked like a parody of himself (something that would be seen on SNL) while performing that song. I half expected him to tip his hat up to reveal Jimmy Fallon underneath. Luckily for those of us who suffered through it, “Love and Only Love” came next…reminding us all why we were there in the first place.
While standing in the parking lot before the show, drinking a beer and watching my shoes sink in the mud, I questioned my decision to be there. For 90% of the three hour set, I was so grateful that I was able to score free tickets. I would have bought tickets if I had known the show would be that good. For the other 10%, I was pretty bored. Walking out of the show, I was still convinced it was the best shows of the year, despite being uneven. Looking back on the night, two days later, I still believe it will go down as one of the best shows of the 2015 Red Rocks season. The weather cleared up…it was a great night out with good friends…and Neil Young performed 27 songs. They weren’t all good songs, but Young has always been the type to do whatever he wants. I’m sure he’s disappointed that his fans aren’t sold on The Monsanto Years, but it’s the album he wanted to make. The fact that he was able to include almost the whole thing in his set (without killing the mood) and still have room for another 20 songs, just goes to show what an amazing performer he really is.
Band of Horses: (partial)
Am I a Good Man
Cigarettes, Wedding Bands
Ode to LRC
The Great Salt Lake
Is There a Ghost
After the Gold Rush
Heart of Gold
Long May You Run
Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)
Hold Back the Tears
Out on the Weekend
Peace of Mind
Field of Opportunity
Words (Between the Lines of Age)
Flying on the Ground Is Wrong
Bad Fog of Loneliness
People Want to Hear About Love
A New Day For Love
Cowgirl in the Sand
A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop
Love and Only Love
Don’t Be Denied