If there is one thing that any fan of Neil Young knows, it’s that Neil Young does what Neil Young wants.
One would be hard pressed to find an artist in the rock n’ roll era that has more steadfastly, some might say stubbornly, stayed true to his ever-changing visions than Young. His forays into electronic, rockabilly and blues left devotees scratching their heads- and his then label, Geffen Records, filing suit against him or making “unrepresentative music” – and his unpredictably on again, off again relationships with bandmates in both Crazy Horse and Crosby, Stills and Nash is the stuff of legend (Young once dropped off a Stills-Young Band Tour after nine dates with a telegram to his partner: “Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil”).
Yet his catalog is still so overwhelmingly packed with successes that it’s never a wise choice to bet against him, and when he opened his Wednesday night set in Mansfield with a strong string of classics, all delivered solo, it looked like the smart money was on Young again. That was until his latest concept fascination, the Monsanto Company, genetically modified organisms, and the business of agriculture took over the evening. The effect was the noisy electric equivalent of a dinner party guest with an agenda, which he rarely moved off.
But prior to that, Young slid behind a beat-up upright piano and delivered a lovely, understated version of “After The Gold Rush” to start the show. It was then on to acoustic guitar and harmonica as Young stood alone at center stage and delivered glorious takes on “Heart of Gold”, “Long May You Run”, and “Helpless.” By the time he moved to the pump organ for a suitably mournful, “Mother Earth”, the mood had been set and the faithful, heavy on a 45 year-old and up demographic with a smattering of youthful hipsters, were primed.
Young was then joined by Promise of the Real, his current backing band – featuring Willie Nelson offspring, Lukas and Micah on guitars – with whom he recorded The Monsanto Years. Having been partnered with Willie in the Farm-Aid movement since its inception, Young’s collaboration with his boys made sense, and from the moment they launched into the Young obscurity “Out On The Weekend” it was a perfect fit. The five-piece group had just the right amount of country swagger to bring the song to life and the voices to sing beautifully in harmony around Young all night. “Harvest Moon” with the Promise backing vocals shone brightly while two other rarities, the fierce “Words (Between The Lines Of Age)” and the rambling “Walk On”, seemed to find Young invigorated by his young bandmates.
It was at that moment, just prior to asking the “Great Woods” crowd how they were doing (Young took great joy in referring to the venue by its original non-corporate name on multiple occasions throughout the evening), that the show turned to political theater. Young’s target was never in doubt and the next five songs he played – and seven of the final nine – were a mixed bag melodically that were all undeniably hamstrung and handcuffed by their lyrics overwhelmingly political agenda. If a line like, “Monsanto and Starbucks through the Grocery Manufacturers Alliance,” looks like it would be hard to sing it wasn’t any easier to hear.
A song like “Big Box”, about large retail outlets, was a prime example of the problem. Melodically it was the kind of noisy electric rocker that Young made a benchmark of with Crazy Horse. It sounded like a direct descendant of his classic, “Fuckin’ Up.” But, whereas that tune was a proud high school drop-out lyrically, “Big Box” was a grad student too smart for it’s own damn good, and as a result it failed until the high octane guitar storm that closed it out.
When Young finally threw the assembled a well-earned bone with a vigorous working through “Cowgirl In The Sand”, a significant portion of them were lost. By this point many were only rising from their seats to leave, which they did unhesitatingly when he followed with the duo of “Workin’ Man” and “Monsanto Years”. When 11 o’clock arrived, he did his senior supporters no further favor by playing a familiar song, “Love and Only Love,” for twenty minutes past the expected curfew. In the end the show came across not as a challenge successfully met, but as an opportunity to reinvent some classics with the assistance of youthful voice and energy lost to stubborn self-indulgence.
In their opening set Puss N’ Boots provided a nice earthy blend of material from their 2014 debut, No Fools, No Fun, as many early arrivals slowly realized the the small woman with the big voice behind the red guitar was multi-platinum artist Norah Jones. The trio, rounded out by Catherine Popper and Sasha Dobson, was tight but also playful such as when Jones recounted a tale of a woman at the group’s local debut at The Sinclair last summer, who was tired of being hushed and threw a drunken punch at her admonisher’s penis.