Review: Neil Young at Leeds Direct Arena

by Karl Hodge

FCK LDN is dedicated to hidden corners of culture outside London, documenting the up and coming. Then someone like Neil Young comes to town; the eternal workman, clad in plaid and we roll over like obedient puppies. Hello, Mr. Soul – we don’t need to give you a reason. This is Neil Young.

Neil Young, one man band in the opening of his marathon Leeds set.

Neil Young, one band in the opening of his marathon Leeds set. Photo by Jon Pinder – used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Neil Young is out on the road with the band he made 2015’s The Monsanto Years and forthcoming long player Earth with. Promise of the Real boast not one but two of the legendary Willie Nelson’s progeny among their number. Touring the UK and Europe, they’d already hit Belfast, Dublin and Glasgow before Leeds, the capital of the North.

People who listen to Neil Young (your own Dad, or your mate’s scruffy Dad) are an eclectic set. There are those who only hung in for the early days, filing him alongside James Taylor and Jackson Browne in their record box. But Young did something that none of those brown trousered troubadours of the early 70s could manage. He kept on rocking.

Returning to his rock band roots, most often with legendary sidemen Crazy Horse, Young has carved out a career that has taken him from gentle folk, past psychedelic space jam to tin foil suits and electronica. Those who have stayed with him all the way are likely to be full-on, second hand record shop dwelling greybeards; the kind of people who read Mojo.

And male. There are fewer women than men here tonight. Young’s lyrical pre-occupations with political dissent on one side and decorative ladies on the other are as masculine as it gets. He is both of his time and outside it.

Famously ornery, Young has never really been bothered about anything but playing the music he wants to play, when he wants to play it. Just ask man-band Crosby, Stills and Nash who, in their final leg of tours with Young, found themselves roped into a series of shows promoting Young’s Living With War album.

But maybe that Neil Young has left the building. His stance may have softened with old age. More likely, he’s filling the coffers for a new project he hasn’t told anyone about. Tonight’s gig is the closest thing you’ll ever get to a Neil Young greatest hits package, and it still burns.

Promise of the Real - Neil Young and the sons of Willie Nelson.

Promise of the Real – Neil Young and the sons of Willie Nelson. Photo by Jon Pinder – used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

The show opens bang on time, with Young accompanying himself on piano, acoustic guitar and, finally, pipe organ through a tour of some of his best known tunes. After the Gold Rush, Heart of Gold and The Needle and the Damage Done – wrapping up with the, pared down, prosaic and beautiful version of Crazy Horse’s Mother Earth he first debuted at Farm Aid.

Young stays with acoustic guitar and the band joins him for a tour through Young’s contribution to Americana; Unknown Legend and From Hank to Hendrix both long for other, simpler times – the final side in Young’s triangle of themes.

If the first sections of the set lean heavily on close harmonies and old town nostalgia, the final hour is for Young’s hardcore.

Strapping on a battered black Les Paul, he essays a selection of tracks from the Crazy Horse catalogue, giving the band an excuse to freak out long and heavy, with barely a squeal of feedback before we’re into the next two chord jam – including a version of Down by the River that tops the 20 minute mark.

Promise of the Real live up to their name and more. Young’s best known band, Crazy Horse, was a ramshackle rock engine, cylinders misfiring and covered in rust. These young guns have virtuosity and a life spent soaking up influences from those who Young influenced. The 70s songs – Cowgirl in the Sand, Powderfinger – sound newly cut. A version of Mansion on the Hill, originally recorded by Hank Williams in 1948 and covered by Crazy Horse in 1990 is as fresh as anything American alt rock has to offer.

Before the encore we get Rocking in the Free World, which Young announces with the words “Fuck Donald Trump”. It echoes hollow in a concrete cavern full of baby-boomer Brexiters, but they stir once the chords they recognise crash in. At last! One of the loud ones they know. A single soul takes out his lighter, burns his fingers as it gets too hot and gives up.

Fuck Donald Trump.

In total, Young and his band play a set that lasts just under three hours. And though it’s a much more accessible set than any he’s toured before, you get the sense that’s because playing those songs is what currently pleases Neil Young. Fortunately, it also pleases those of us who like to indulge him.

It visibly tests the patience of some of those around us though. At the two hour mark they shuffle in their seats, arms crossed, praying for more of those nice tunes from Harvest. They don’t realise how extraordinarily lucky they are. Neil Young has just described his entire career for us onstage – with the only band he’s ever had capable of doing it.

FCK LDN is numb of bum but overcome by shock and awe, for we have witnessed greatness.