What would it take for Neil Young to not be great?
For his show at the Susquehanna Bank Center on Thursday night, the 69-year-old rock legend stacked the odds against himself. His new album The Monsanto Years is an unrelenting salvo against factory farming, genetically modified organisms and general corporate greed, one of those full-length rants that the cranky Canadian is able to get away with without completely alienating his fan base because - well because he's Neil Young.
Meanwhile, Young has been taking up media space, squabbling with Donald Trump - scolded for playing "Keep Rockin' In The Free World" in announcing his Presidential candidacy - and planning to pull his music from all streaming services because of sound quality complaints. This album and its accompanying 'Rebel Content' tour is a collaboration not with Crazy Horse or any of the other esteemed players Young has worked with over the years, but a quintet of youngsters called The Promise Of The Real, anchored by guitarists Lukas and Micah Nelson, sons of Neil's co-Farm Aid founder Willie.
In such situations, even loyalists in Young's aging fanbase are justifiably skeptical: Will he come out and play the mediocre-at-best new album in its entirety, punctuated by angry diatribes? Will he even reward us, in the end, with "Cortez the Killer" or "Cinnamon Girl"? Can Willie's kids play?
At the Susq, the mysteriousness was compounded as the lights dimmed and the show began with trademark Young theatrical weirdness. Straw hatted crew members dressed as farmers moved about, pretending to plant seeds on the stage.
Eventually, Young emerged and sat stage left at the piano, Fedora pulled down over his brow as he opened with the timeless 1970 eco-anthem "After The Gold Rush." Maybe everything was going to be okay, after all. That was part of a mini-acoustic set that found him in fine, keening voice, reedy harmonica notes hanging in the air on an idyllic summer night. He went from "Heart of Gold" to "Long May You Run," "Old Man," and "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)," the latter at the pump organ, as Young pleaded: "Respect Mother Earth and her giving ways / Don't trade away our children's days."
Young's lack of faith in corporate America to heed that call was expressed in the next bit of kooky stagecraft: Before POTR took the stage, a team of hazmat suit-wearing roadies came on, play acting as if they were poisoning all those precious seedlings by spraying them with pesticides. It seemed like the hectoring was about to begin.
But no. Instead, it was the start of the next stage in a shambling show that would stretch over three hours, eventually finding time for most of the bluntly artless Monsanto songs, but also taking a winning tour through Young's vast catalog.
Starting out with "Hold Back The Tears" (from 1977's American Stars 'n Bars) and "Out On The Weekend" (from 1972's Harvest), the show started out folkie and familial, growing in electric intensity and volume as the evening proceeded.
The evening was rant free. Except for remarking that it would be "a good time for a cup of coffee" before the whistley "A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop," the cheerful anti-Monsanto and Starbucks screed that was played an hour and a half in, the often loquacious Young -who wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Earth"- didn't speak, other than to thank Philadelphia and Camden for coming, and to proudly call attention to the band.
Instead, he let the music do the talking. POTR are obviously no Crazy Horse when it comes to primal power. But then, who is? The young band acquitted themselves well enough with a combo of garage band raggedness and youthful enthusiasm. Young, the Nelson bros and bassist Corey McCormick repeatedly faced each other in four man guitar army huddles, with Lukas Nelson falling to his knees and playing a solo with his teeth during a particularly glorious "Down By The River" that stretched for 20 minutes or so.
There were more reasons for Neil fans who elected to sit this one out to be kicking themselves. Rarities like "Walk On," "Bad Fog of Loneliness," and the Buffalo Springfield song "Flying On The Ground Is Wrong." A stomping "Everybody Knows Is Nowhere," and how surprising well the Monsanto Years populism went over - and how much better is sounded than on record - with a rowdy crowd happy to shout along to blue collar lyrics like "Too big to fail, too rich for jail."
But the main reason to be envious of the fans that kept the faith and counted on Young to rise above his latest studio album failings is that no matter how iconoclastic and head-scratching his career quirks are, he still remains a commanding and often electrifying performer, and one of the great instinctual rock artists and guitarists who seems incapable of playing music without committing himself entirely to the task. And, oh yeah, he closed the show with "Cortez the Killer" and "Cinnamon Girl."
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