The OnMilwaukee.com Summer Festivals Guide is presented by Pick 'n Save, Where Wisconsin Saves on Groceries. Pick 'n Save is Wisconsin proud, and excited to help promote and feed the great Milwaukee summer that includes festivals and fun nearly every day. Click to save here!
In 2003, Neil Young played the Marcus Amphitheater touring his then-new album "Greendale." The socio-political rock opera went over like a lead zeppelin with fans expecting to hear Young’s best known hits.
Young returned to the scene of the crime Sunday night, touring his new album "The Monsanto Years." While the album is a righteous haymaker thrown at rampant corporate greed, GMOs and the intersection where politics and money meet, Young seems to have learned a valuable lesson since "Greendale."
As two young women dressed in bib overalls tossed seeds around the stage, Young settled in behind his upright piano and opened the evening with "After the Goldrush." The 1970 eco-hippy anthem’s "flying Mother Nature’s silver seed" would seem to be the perfect entry point for the new record.
But then Young did the kind of thing that has set him apart from the pack: He defied expectations.
By not diving immediately into the new album, he played a concert that spanned over two dozen songs – many from deep in his catalog ranging from Buffalo Springfield’s "Flying on the Ground is Wrong" to "Walk On" and "Don’t Be Denied," a pair of tunes from his so-called "Ditch Trilogy" of albums – that gave everyone their money’s worth and allowed Young to have his say.
Playing solo acoustic guitar for the opening four tunes, Young switched to pump organ for "Mother Earth," another nod toward the new album. At the song’s conclusion, folks in hazmat suits spraying "DDT" covered the seeds the young farmers had sown. Not exactly subtle, but that was it.
Young then brought out Promise of the Real, the band that plays on the new album. The quintet – featuring a pair of Willie Nelson’s sons – delivered vocal harmonies, pliant rhythms and dynamics that moved from sensitive folk to raging rock and roll.
The quintet played guitar, slide guitar, bass, drums, mandolin (sometimes with a bow), piano and congas. When all is said and done, they may very well be the most sympathetic and versatile band Young has ever shared a stage with. In fact, Young traded electric guitar solos with Lukas Nelson more than anyone since Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten (a listener might be tempted to compare the current collaboration with Young’s 1995 album with Pearl Jam. Based on this concert, Pearl Jam was a one-trick pony).
While a nearly 15-minute version of "Down By the River" is always a launch pad for guitar dueling, tonight it was "Love and Only Love" (from 1990’s "Ragged Glory") that found Young surrounded in a semi-circle by his youthful compadres, giving as well as getting. Young and the Nelsons built an epic guitar barrage, only to find Young settling things down before ultimately riding on sheets of sound.
If you follow a performer like Young for over 30 years, you get to see a lot of changes. You witness many good concerts, some great ones and even a bit of unexpected magic, like this one.
In a sense, you could track this show by Young’s choice of guitars. Beginning with Martin acoustics, he settled into a comfortable solo vibe and then worked the band in. A dozen songs in, he switched to his white hollow-body electric Gretsch. As the band slid into the rarely played "Words," Young’s strings sounded like barbed wire, as the musicians deftly navigated the time signature changes.
A few songs later when Young plugged in his rugged old black late '50s Les Paul, the show’s dynamic shifted to something heavier, more serious and darker. That was the sound he drove home.
And the new material? Young managed to play nearly the entire album.
Think about that for a second.
When was the last time a major artist played that much new material – let alone songs so politically charged? (Monsanto is definitely getting a lot of free mentions thanks to Young.)
Granted, Young sounds like the old guy yelling at you for cutting across his lawn. But if you listen, he sure seems to have a point.