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5 Reasons Why Neil Young’s Current Tour Is One of His Best in Decades

Smart pacing, phenomenal playing and deep cuts to die for

Neil Young

Neil Young's current tour with Promise of the Real features a 69-year-old master backed by a stellar young band.

Erik Kabik

Nobody would have been too shocked had Neil Young delivered a slightly subpar performance at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas on Sunday evening. Beyond the simple fact that the 69-year-old played a blazing three-hour show at the Santa Barbara Bowl the previous night, he's not exactly Mr. Las Vegas. He somehow managed to avoid playing the glitzy casino town a single time until 1991, bitched mightily about the rude crowd at a 1999 solo acoustic gig and has completely skipped over the market on every tour he's done during the past 12 years. Also, he was taking a show that rails against man's insatiable greed into a town completely built on man's insatiable greed and that celebrates it at every turn.

And of all the casinos on the strip, the super-sleek Cosmopolitan pretty much caters to the youngest crowd. The main floor sometimes feels like a never-ending spring break, with half-dressed college-age kids running around carrying comically oversized drinks. It's almost the last venue in the world one can imagine seeing Neil Young, but there he was, taking the stage at third-floor theater the Chelsea after a killer opening set by Jenny Lewis, who watched the entire set from the side of the stage near Daryl Hannah, who was snapping photos throughout the night.

At just about 3,000 seats, the Chelsea is the smallest venue on Young's Rebel Content tour, without a single bad seat in the house. From the opening notes of "After the Gold Rush," it was clear that Young was completely in the zone, and the magic lasted into the guitar breakdown at the conclusion of "Cinnamon Girl" almost three hours later. Beyond a few tiny digs at Vegas during the night, he acted like it was any ordinary stop on the tour. It was further evidence that, beyond his work with Crazy Horse, this is his best tour in at least 20 years. Here are five reasons why that's the case.

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© Erik Kabik/ erikkabik.com

Erik Kabik

The Band Members Are All Neil Young Superfans

Willie Nelson's son Lukas actually formed his band, Promise of the Real, at a 2007 Neil Young show, and they named the group after a line in the 1974 classic "Walk On." They may be young enough to be his grandchildren, but they have encyclopedic knowledge of his vast catalog and can handle anything he throws at them without breaking a sweat.

For the first time in his career, Young is being backed by group that grew up playing air guitar to "Down by the River" in their childhood bedrooms. These aren't grizzled veterans that have been burned by Young time and time again, but twentysomethings that can't believe their luck to be on this journey. Their unbridled enthusiasm is infectious and the entire crowd can feel it. Bassist Corey McCormick is often singing along to the songs when he's nowhere near a microphone, and when Young makes the impromptu call to bust out something like "Cortez the Killer," they seem just as thrilled as the audience.

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Erik Kabik

Super-Deep Cuts Keep Surfacing

Many of Neil Young's recent tours, even with the mighty Crazy Horse, have been marred by repetitive set lists. That hasn't been an issue on this tour. Nearly every night, he's brought out at least one song that leaves even the hardcore fans shocked. At the Cosmopolitan show, it was the 1967 Buffalo Springfield tune "Burned," which Young almost never does at a solo show. At the Santa Barbara Bowl, he played "Time Fades Away" for only the second time since 1973. Other shows have featured "Vampire Blues," "Don't Be Denied," "Alabama," "Double E," "Hippie Dream," "Western Hero," "Lookin' for a Love" and many other songs the fans thought they'd never see him do again. It's a great way to reward the faithful that trek from show to show, and tremendous fun for those merely following along on YouTube.

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Erik Kabik

The New Songs Are Great Live

The Monsanto Years is not for everyone. It's a concept album about the evils of the agrochemical company Monsanto that might even cause the people who fully agree that Citizens United was a horrid Supreme Court decision and corporations aren't people to occasionally wince. Good people can disagree about GMO's, but in "People Want to Hear About Love," Young says that pesticides cause autism. The scientific evidence is far from conclusive on that point, and the song veers dangerously close to anti-vaccine nonsense. Rolling Stone critic Jon Dolan pointed out that the lyrics read like the comments section of a Daily Kos article.

But if you can look past all that, it quickly becomes clear that the Monsanto Years material translates fantastically to the stage. Young is singing the songs with the zealousness of Bob Dylan on his 1979 gospel tour, and the music is extremely catchy and never boring. "Wolf Moon" is a great companion to "Harvest Moon," and "A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop" will go down in history as the best anti-Starbucks song ever attempted. It was actually upsetting in Vegas when Young neglected to play the mournful "If I Don't Know."

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Erik Kabik

The Nelson Boys Have Insane Chops

Young has worked with a lot of amazing guitarists over the years, from Stephen Stills to Danny Whitten, Nils Lofgren, Ben Keith, Frank "Poncho" Sampedro and Steve Cropper. With all of them, he formed an almost psychic bond that allowed them to meld their instruments into one. That's exactly what has happened with Lukas and Micah.

During an epic "Cowgirl in the Sand" in Vegas, the three stood in a circle for a frenzied exorcism of a guitar jam. It was hard to tell who was playing what, but it was absolutely beautiful. Young has grown so comfortable with Lukas on this leg that he's even allowed him to sit at the piano midway through the night and sing "September Song," which his father covered on Stardust. The vocal similarities between father and son are astounding, and Young simply plays acoustic guitar during the number, stands in the shadows and watches it happen. Micah, meanwhile, adds subtle touches to each song and moves over to the piano for "Words" and "Alabama," bringing back the spirit of Harvest.

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Erik Kabik

The Pacing Is Masterful

Each show begins with Young alone onstage singing acoustic renditions of "After the Gold Rush," "Heart of Gold" and "Old Man." Not only does this move get his biggest hits out of the way and guarantee that nobody is screaming for them the rest of the night, it starts things off very softly. The band then comes out for quiet songs from Harvest and Harvest Moon, before Young slips on his Gretsch White Falcon for heavier material and finally Old Black for the thrashed-out jams that close out the night.

It's a gradual escalation of intensity during a three-hour show which Micah has compared to Frodo Baggins' journey from the tranquil Shire to the stormy Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings series. It's a perfect analogy for the show, but hopefully this saga has many more chapters to come. 

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