Some die-hard Neil Young fans have mentioned that the mercurial rocker’s most recent live shows with Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real are the best ones he has ever performed.
I have found that hard to believe, because I have seen Young live 25 times or more, and I can’t fathom the current contingent besting some of those great shows. They include Young’s spectacular Rust Never Sleeps tour, his hard-charging country-rock International Harvester tour and his tour with Booker T. and the MG’s.
Yet, I’m an open-minded soul who may be wrong. I have not seen Young play with Lukas and his group — a group named after Young’s lyric in “Walk On,” the opening cut of his classic 1974 album On the Beach. "Some get stoned/some get strange/But sooner or later/ it all gets real.”
So I turn to the Rusties — Young’s most devoted fans who converse about their man online — and ask them to explain why Young’s shows with Willie Nelson’s son and his musical entourage are unsurpassed.
Ben Langford, 37, of Shreveport, Louisiana, has listened to Young most of his life and saw him with Promise of the Real (POTR) at the Desert Trip music festival in Indio, California, in October. The extravaganza of rock giants also included Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Roger Waters.
Young’s performance with POTR, a four-piece band that calls its music “cowboy hippie surf rock,” was “phenomenal,” Langford exclaims. “I think Neil's playing some of the best live shows of his career with this band, and it's the most versatile band he's ever played with. They can rock as hard as Crazy Horse (Young’s long-time backup band), as well as provide the rustic backdrop for the acoustic material, a la Stray Gators (his early 1970s band).
“I loved how the set built slowly to a climax, starting with a solo ‘After the Gold Rush’ and ending with a triumphantly ragged ‘Rockin’ in the Free World.’ In between, nearly every facet of Neil's career was covered. ‘Harvest Moon’ brought me to tears. ‘Down By the River’ built up to an army of guitars howling at me. I howled back. It was my favorite set of the weekend.”
Langford says a few tunes on Young’s newest album, Peace Trail, which was recorded without POTR, worked well live with POTR.
“Peace Trail fits in nicely with Neil's body of work,” Langford says. “He previewed a few tunes at the Desert Trip show, and it was nice to hear them in a more stripped-down setting than on the album. The title track is particularly strong and was a highlight for me at Desert Trip.”
Peace Trail was released in December — seven months after Young released Earth, a double album based on live performances with POTR.
“Neil's Earth CD is typical quirky Neil.” Langford says. “It showcases the strengths of Promise of the Real, while also adding Neil's eccentric touch through the overdubbed sound effects. He was due for another contemporary — as opposed to archival — live album, and it was nice to hear him offer something different from what came before.”
Langford, who also saw Young with Crazy Horse at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, in 2003, was introduced to Young and his music by his father.
“I think Neil’s performance in The Last Waltz may have been the first thing I recall hearing, though CSNY, Buffalo Springfield, and his solo work were staples in my childhood home. In college, I became a serious fan and began collecting his catalog. The collection is long-since complete now.”
Andrew Byrom, who lives in Leeds, England, saw three Young shows with POTR in London, Glasgow, and Amsterdam.
“I’ve seen Neil live 21 times and thought these gigs were among the best I have seen,” Byrom says. “The main reason is the variety of songs played and the changes in the set list each night. On a Crazy Horse tour, the set list remains static, but, with POTR, you really never knew what was going to be played next. Amsterdam was outstanding, the longest show of Neil’s career and some incredible performances, including ‘Change Your Mind,’ ‘Like An Inca.’ and ‘Don’t Be Denied.’”
Byrom says Young “is thriving off the energy” of POTR and its “ability to play any song from his back catalog.”
Petter Osbak, who lives in Oslo, Norway, has followed Young since 1972 and attended 13 concerts, beginning with one in 1976 with Crazy Horse.
“The concerts with Promise of the Real are definitely the concerts that I have enjoyed most,” he says. “I went to four concerts in Europe last summer. The energy those guys managed to convey to the old Young is simply amazing. They pay him enough respect to let him be the definitive center of attention and, at the same time, add their feelings, technique, and abilities to the picture.
“In my opinion, he plays his best live shows ever with POTR. I have been to concerts with him alone, four times with Crazy Horse and with POTR. I think POTR is the band Neil Young has deserved all the time to make the most out of his music. They are in many ways comparable to Crazy Horse, but, with two guitarists, they have enough resources to challenge Young as a soloist. The duels between Lukas Nelson and Neil Young have been magic. Never has anyone managed to extract so much energy out of Young and his music!”
Osbak attended shows last year in Northern Ireland, Ireland, Sweden, and Norway and says Norway was the best one.
“The main reason I enjoyed this show the most was the choice of songs. We got ‘Cowgirl in the Sand.’ ‘Like a Hurricane,’ ‘Winterlong,’ and ‘Love to Burn.’ Epic! I am still high!”
Keith Haman of Carlsbad, California, has a very different view, saying Young’s shows with POTR “seem to have grown into quite a spectacle.”
Haman was “not particularly impressed” with POTR when he saw them with Young in 2015.
“It seemed loose in a scattered way, like the musicians were all playing lead, or too aware of how they sounded,” he says. “I kept comparing them to Neil's other great bands and thought they fell short. When I saw POTR in Pomona, California, in between the two Desert Trip shows a year later, they were well-oiled, tight, rockin', and had found their own groove with Neil.”
The Pomona show — the second of two shows there — “was amazing,” Haman says. “I wish I'd seen the first show as well, which had opened with ‘Like An Inca’ (from the 1982 album Trans). What we got was a loose, fun show at which Neil was supported by musicians who had grown and learned how to support him and the music.”
Despite Haman’s belief that POTR grew into a “well-oiled” unit behind Young last year, he doesn’t believe the combination resulted in Young’s finest live shows.
“Neil is not playing some of his best live shows,” Haman says. “He still plays and sings very well and can still break through the wall. But, as good as these shows were, there was a lack of intensity and intimacy that, for me, is found mostly when he plays with Crazy Horse or solo.”