Neil Young + Promise of the Real
October 12, 2016
Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Kimberly Annette
I did it again! I saw another one of the six acts from Desert Trip the week of Desert Trip without going to Desert Trip (you get all that?). You’d think a $7 million paycheck for two back-to-back weekend spots would translate into a nice weeklong vacation, but no — apparently some of these guys need a pick-up gig or two to tide them over. Seeing the Who last week before their Sunday Desert Trip slot saved me a trip to Indio (Roger Waters de dammed). Catching Neil Young with Promise of the Real for one of the two midweek shows at the Fox Theater in Pomona made up for missing Saturday (Paul McCartney at Pappy & Harriet’s or Desert Trip would have been fun, but I’ll live with the memory of going to the ex-Beatle’s gig at Dodger Stadium in 2014).
Even better was that Neil Young with Promise of the Real showed up in Pomona, ready to shake the cobwebs off a few old gems, polish up some new material, and get down to the business of jamming late into the night. When I saw the 8:30 start time, I figured they’d play a 90-minute set and be done by 10. Instead, the lights came down at 8:45, the band plugged in and the music flowed for three solid hours. Then again, with Neil Young, it’s always a crap shoot. The last time I saw him was in New York during the 2013 Farm Aid concert. Crazy Horse had been sidelined because guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro hurt his hand, and Young spent much of his solo acoustic set playing covers, and ranting about fracking and GMOs.
His set at Desert Trip was similar to shows he played in late September and early October; the set he played in Pomona was totally off script. The word going around was that Young would come out by himself and strum through a handful of acoustically based songs before bringing out Promise of the Real to join him. Instead, the whole gang came out together and spent the next 25 minutes locked into a hard-bitten groove with an odd percussive break, reshaping the funky sleeper “Like An Inca” from 1982’s Trans album in a monolithic epic.
Whenever Neil Young plays with a backing band, my first concern is whether they can complement him as well as Crazy Horse. They may not be the most technically proficient set of musicians, and they don’t hold a candle to some of the players out of Nashville that Young has employed, but there’s a special formula, an unfathomable chemistry between Young and the Horse that pushes, pulls and coalesces when all the pieces click at just the right moment. I had yet to see Promise of the Real in any form, but after tonight, I saw them challenge and reinvigorate Neil Young. Drummer Anthony Logerfo and percussionist Tato Melgar kept the pace rolling and on time, while bassist Corey McCormick faced off Young as if Billy Talbot was the big white elephant who left the room.
The two-guitar weave Lukas and Micah Nelson (Willie Nelson’s sons) bring to the table is more intricate and pre-conceived than that of Poncho, considered by many longtime wheat thrashers as Young’s perfect musical foil. When plums like “The Loner,” “Powderfinger,” maybe even “Fuckin’ Up,” came tumbling out, Young’s wall of feedback and electric scratching had to tunnel through layers of power chords, darting sprinkles of lead stitch-work and ill-tempered arpeggios, creating a sonic comet on fire and headed to earth. At other times, during "Neighborhood (Hang Gliders)," one of four new songs unveiled, and "Walk On," Young left guitar duties to the Nelson brothers and turned frontman, armed with only a harmonica and a microphone.
What made this night so special were the song choices, and for that, it went deep and wide. From Young’s 1968 self-titled debut solo album, he not only reeled in "The Loner,” but thoughtful renditions of "If I Could Have Her Tonight" and "I've Been Waiting For You" as well. The career-spanning voyage carried on with two from 1978's Comes A Time — "Human Highway" and "Peace Of Mind" — along with "Words (Between the Lines of Age)" from 1972's Harvest and "From Hank To Hendrix" from 1992's Harvest Moon. Curiously, none of the songs from 2015's The Monsanto Year, Young's most recent studio record and his first with Promise of The Real, popped up, although "Seed Justice" from the live 2016 Earth record, thematically very much in the spirit of Young's dispute with Monsanto, complete with animal sounds, was pulled in.
As for fan favorites, "Cinnamon Girl," "Cortez The Killer," "I Am A Child," "Cowgirl in Ihe Sand," and "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" all made the cut and hit the jackpot with the 2,000 or so lucky audience members salivating at the mere thought of just being there. Hardcores likely lost their minds when, for the final song of the evening, "Piece A Crap" was unwrapped and played for the first time in 15 years. It got the whole place jumping, including Young and the band.
I’m reminded of all the talk about Desert Trip being what Mick Jagger has referred to as "Coachella for old people," and "The Palm Springs retirement home for genteel musicians." Maybe Neil Young and Promise of the Real didn't get the memo because playing at the level and intensity they did in Pomona, they don’t look like they’re about to hang it up anytime soon; by all indications, they’re just getting started.