He's taken half a century to get here, but backed by Promise of the Real the Canadian is still the hurricane force of old, and shows no signs of quitting
The lightning storms that had ripped through Northern Irish skies this week may have been a portent of the musical thunder that Neil Young brings to shows, and Belfast, at last, is no exception.
The Canadian legend has taken his time in coming here, having toured internationally just about everywhere else for the past fifty years. And at seventy years of age, there are probably some in the audience who’d wondered if Young is still the hurricane force of old, on this 2016 Rebel Content Tour.
The opening slot sees the much-lauded singer-songwriter Laura Marling seduce with a classy performance of contemporary folk, backed by a tight, five-piece band. From the opener ‘Rambling Man’ from her excellent album I Speak Because I Can, to offerings from her most recent effort, Short Movie, Marling’s lyrically poignant, melodically stirring tunes leave their mark.
It can’t be easy to preach before another’s congregation, particularly one buzzing with the expectation of the feast ahead, but Marling wins over a goodly portion of the standing crowd with impressive songs like the rhythmically driving ‘Daisy’, the yearning, Joni Mitchel-esque ‘How Can I’ and an intimate version of Towns Van Zandt’s ‘Waiting Around to Die’.
However, the yawning cavern of the SSE isn’t the most sympathetic acoustic environment for a singer of Marling’s evident class. The Black Box? Now that would be something special.
Without much delay, the lights go down once more and Neil Young slips onto the stage to huge cheers, sits down at a battered old piano and launches into ‘After the Gold Rush’, the title track of his iconic 1970 album. His plaintive vocal –remarkably unchanged by the years - describes an alien spaceship coming to Earth to rescue Mother Nature’s seed and transport it to a new home.
Young’s concern for the environment has never wavered, though these days his outrage at corporate immorality/criminality is more pointed than ever before, as last year’s The Monsanto Years demonstrated.
Strangely, only the title track of that album, one of Young’s best studio efforts in years, makes it into this Belfast set. ‘The seeds of life are not what they once were,’ Young intones, ‘Mother Nature and God don’t own them anymore.’
Young lets the music do the talking, though the theatrical sight of two farmers – Marlings’ backing singers?- sowing seeds on the stage, only for two other figures, covered in bio-chemical suits, to then spray pesticides on the seeds says all that needs to be said.
It’s a set of two halves. On his opening solo set Young strums and picks acoustic gems including ‘Heart of Gold’, ‘Needle and the Damage Done’ and ‘Comes a Time’. An old reed organ – circa 1885 - complete with pipes, brings hymnal gravitas to ‘Oh Mother Earth’, where Young is joined by The Promise of the Real.
With guitarists Lukas and Micha Nelson, bassist Corey McCormick, percussionist Tato Melgar and drummer Anthony Legerfo, Young has found a terrifically attuned backing band – whose name comes from a Young lyric - and whether on country-ish fare like ‘From Hank to Hendrix’ and ‘Out of the Weekend’, the lilting Mexicana of ‘Hold Back the Tears’ or the skull-crushing jams that rage in the latter half of the show, it’s difficult not to think of Crazy Horse, Young’s intermittent ensemble of many years.
The crowd is in good voice on ‘Harvest Moon’, and ‘Alabama’ but saves its best for the epic ‘Down by the River’, which swells into a thrilling twenty-five minute jam-fest of unrelenting punkish energy.
Young rails once more at corporate greed and environment plunder with the rockers ‘Vampire Blues’, ‘I Won’t Quit’ and ‘After the Garden is Gone’, but the anger is tempered by sing-along country-ish tunes like ‘Country Home’ and those anthemic odes to love - 1968’s ‘I’ve Been Waiting’ is a wonderful surprise - that pepper the set.
The classics come thick and fast, with a coruscating version of Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr. Soul’, ‘Mansion on the Hill’ and ‘Love and Only Love’ rounding out a three-hour set. For the encore, Young and Promise of the Real serve up ‘Roll Another Number (for the Road’), Young’s ode to the earth’s most popular natural drug.
Young may allegedly have quit that vice in recent years but he isn’t quitting the road, he isn’t quitting incendiary protest songs and he isn’t quitting from rocking out like someone half his age. A contender for gig of the year.