Neil Young and Promise of the Real were just four shows into their Rebel Content Tour this summer when guitarist Micah Nelson had what he calls an "out-of-body experience." "We were playing 'Big Box' at the Nebraska show and suddenly I was floating above my body," he says. "I thought to myself, 'I'm playing a show now, and I need to keep moving my hands and get back down because otherwise I'm going to fuck up.' It was very bizarre and euphoric."
It was just one of many surreal moments for the 25-year-old son of Willie Nelson, who played guitar with his brother Lukas' band Promise of the Real on Young's newest album, The Monsanto Years. They supported it with 12 American amphitheater dates in July, regularly staging three-hour marathon shows that mixed classic Young hits with new tracks and deep cuts that hadn't been touched in years.
"One of the best moments was when we did 'Cortez the Killer' for 20 minutes as the encore at Jones Beach," Nelson says. "At the end, Neil played that three note riff for what seemed like 10 minutes straight while we all danced around the stage, waving our guitars like we were having a lightsaber battle. He hit the whammy bar so hard, all the strings just ripped out of the guitar. It wasn't just one of my favorite moments of the tour, but of my entire life."
Weeks before the tour kicked off at Milwaukee's Marcus Ampithetear, Young sent the band a tape of 80 songs to learn. It was an eclectic mix of new and old that included "Ride My Llama," "Flying on the Ground Is Wrong," "Burned," "Winterlong," "Don't Be Denied," "Field of Opportunity," "Hippie Dream" and "Vampire Blues." "About 95 percent of them we'd heard at least once before," says Nelson. "But we still had to lock in the changes and play them a few times to get them down."
Formal rehearsals began a few nights before opening night at the Alpine Valley Resort in Wisconsin. "One night, as the sun was setting, Neil played 'After the Gold Rush' on the piano," says Nelson. "I said, 'Wouldn't it be great to open the show like that?' He said, 'Yeah.' Then we all just kind of came up with the set list together, though I think Neil had been conceiving it in his mind for quite some time. The basic idea was that we'd progress from acoustic to mellow to heavy and electric, but filling in the blanks was a collaborative effort."
Every show began with Young alone at the piano playing "After the Gold Rush," followed by solo acoustic renditions of some of his biggest hits, like "Heart of Gold," "Old Man" and "Long May You Run," on guitar. After four songs, the band would come out for a semi-acoustic set that leaned toward Harvest and Harvest Moon material like "Out on the Weekend," "Unknown Legend" and "Harvest Moon." Young would then strap on his White Falcon guitar for harder-edged material like "Words" and "Walk On," along with Monstano Years tracks. The final portion of the show found Young playing his trusty Gibson Les Paul Old Black on jammed-out renditions of "Cowgirl in the Sand," "Love and Only Love" and other tunes generally associated with Crazy Horse.
"Every night was like climbing a mountain," says Nelson. "You start down in the Shire, and by the end, you're in the crater of Mount Doom. He never really wanted us to rehearse anything too much, just have the essence and vibe of any song. Sometimes the first time we ever did a song, we were in front of 50,000 people."
Many shows on the tour stretched past the three-hour mark, though Young — who turns 70 in November — never seemed to have any trouble keeping up with his new bandmates, all of whom are in their twenties. "He's a nuclear reactor," says Nelson. "He was pushing us as much as we were pushing him, honestly. One of the greatest things about the whole thing was that he was just as fired up and energized as we were. It was just peaking constantly. The whole show was this big eruption, and just when you thought it couldn't get any heavier, we just kept pushing each other."
"The whole show was this big eruption, and just when you thought it couldn't get any heavier, we just kept pushing each other."—Micah Nelson
The longest concert, at Lincoln, Nebraska's Pinnacle Bank Arena on July 11th, featured 29 songs (including a 20-minute "Down by the River"), though curfew issues in some markets forced them to end early. "They'd sometimes have a $25,000 fine for going a minute past curfew," Nelson says. "But that didn't always stop us. In Detroit, we just said, 'Fuck you' and played half an hour over time. It must have cost us, like, 30 grand, but we saw it as a donation to the city. The fans were so revved up that we just couldn't leave them hanging."
It ended on July 24th in front a massive crowd in Ontario, Canada, at the Wayhome Festival. "We had no curfew there," says Nelson. "So we pushed limits that didn't even exist and then pushed it further. That was the first time we ever did 'Fuckin' Up' or 'Rockin' in the Free World,' and it was in front of 50,000 people. We were fired up by the youthful energy of the crowd and just wanted to end the tour with an epic blowout."
Cameras were rolling during many of the shows. "Daryl [Hannah] was filming a lot," says Nelson. "I would expect a DVD at some point. And Neil is always talking about the next record. He'll be like, 'Yeah, let's do that on the next record!' So hopefully that'll happen at some point."
Less than a week after the tour ended, Nelson was back on the road with Insects vs Robots, his primary band. "I'm running on fumes," he says. "But they're powerful fumes. I'm so inspired to record new material now. I learned so much from playing with Neil. It's like apprenticing with a Jedi master. Now I get to come back and apply the lessons to my own projects. I hope it never ends."
There have been no future dates announced for Neil Young and Promise of the Real, but on July 30th, Young posted a message on Facebook that strongly hinted they were coming. "Playing with these guys was a gift," he wrote. "Such positivity, pure energy & no fear. I loved rocking with Promise of the Real. I love this band. Lets keep it going." Days later he was even more explicit: "I'm thinkin.... we'll be back... #TheMonsantoYears #RebelContentTour."
Micah is quite ready to keep it going. "The rumor at the end of this run was that we'd start at Farm Aid [on September 19th]," he says, "and then tour with Neil up the West Coast leading to the Bridge School Benefit [on October 24th.] I think it's gonna happen. I hope it's gonna happen. It sounds like it's gonna happen, but I honestly have no idea. It's an interesting process of getting information in the Neil world. His management will hear things after my brother and I hear them, or I won't know that something is happening until I read about it in the press. There's no system of communication. It just happens."
Like many Neil Young fans, Micah is hoping that the legend tours again with Crazy Horse at some point in the future. That band played without Billy Talbot in the summer of 2014 because the bassist suffered a stroke shortly before the kick-off date. "Billy actually came out to the Red Rocks show," says Nelson. "We got to hang out briefly, and it was cool to see him smiling and loving the music. I didn't ask him about his health, but he was walking without a cane or anything and just seemed great. He looked to be in good health."
As the three members of Crazy Horse know all too well, making anything resembling long-term plans with Young is quite difficult. "This could be all over for us tomorrow," says Nelson. "Right now, he's riding the wave with us, but tomorrow he might call and say, 'OK, I wanna make a polka record with this German band.' Neil does whatever he wants whenever the muse calls him, but it seems like right now the muse is Promise of the Real, and Neil is our muse. It's a beautiful collaboration. It sounds like we're going to push it until it can't go any further."