By: Brent Hallenbeck
ESSEX JUNCTION – Neil Young’s new album, “The Monsanto Years,” is all about agriculture and degradation of the environment. He didn’t have to start with any of those new songs at Sunday’s concert at the Champlain Valley Exposition, however, to demonstrate his long-standing interest in the health of the planet.
“Look at Mother Nature on the run/In the 21st century,” the veteran rocker sang on “After the Goldrush,” the 45-year-old acoustic tune he opened his concert with. He made a concession to the passing of the years by changing the original line “in the 1970s” to “in the 21st century,” but otherwise proved that when it comes to being a man of his time, Neil Young is timeless.
Sunday’s show in Essex Junction was Young’s first-ever headlining show in Vermont, and was driven in large part by his support for the state’s law requiring food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The Grocery Manufacturers Association has filed suit against Vermont over that law, and Young announced Sunday that he’s donating $100,000 to the fund helping the state fight that lawsuit.
Given that impetus behind the show, though, Young’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour concert was largely restrained about politics – for instance, he didn’t talk about the presidential candidate he favors, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont - and focused on the music that has made him one of rock’s top songsmiths for nearly half a century. He came out in blue jeans, a dark brimmed hat and a black T-shirt reading “Earth” and began with quieter tunes featuring his naturally strained, upper-register voice on top of acoustic guitar (with occasional harmonica interludes).
This was not the angry 69-year-old man raging against the corporate machine on “The Monsanto Years.” This was calm, reflective, often celebratory Neil Young as he played old favorites such as “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man.”
After about a half-dozen solo songs he was joined by his band, Promise of the Real, featuring Lukas and Micah Nelson, the sons of Willie Nelson, Young’s old buddy from the “Farm Aid” concerts. At first they stayed with familiar crowd favorites such as “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and “Unknown Legend,” but the intensity of the night was just starting to build.
It wasn’t until about 50 minutes into the show that Young and the band played a song from “The Monsanto Years,” but it was the folkiest tune on the album, the Native American-inspired “Wolf Moon.” Then Young picked up the electric guitar, and he and the band turned the last half of the concert into a rock fest, starting with the long, slow-burning intro to his 1972 song “Words (Between the Lines of Age).” The crowd’s loud response after the song showed that the 10,000-plus on hand were ready for the night to get a little wilder.
Young gave Lukas Nelson a perfectly chosen showcase, saying Nelson would play “a special song for you now.” Nelson moved from guitar to piano for “Moonlight in Vermont,” an old standard his father often covers, even singing it with a warm, wavering tone like Willie Nelson employs. The crowd gave Nelson one of its heartiest ovations of the night.
“Almost time for a cup of coffee!” Young shouted next, which meant the band was about to break into the showcase tune from the new album, “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop.” That song begins with chipper whistling and a jaunty beat yet roughly eviscerates Starbucks and other companies connected to the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
He drew loud cheers when he sang the line “When the people of Vermont voted to label food with GMOs.” The lyrics from “The Monsanto Years” are more blunt and less artful than Young’s best work of years gone by, but the song’s lighthearted feel shows that Young can have a little fun while singing about the man keeping everyone down.
The band plays with a loose style yet the songs sounded crisp all night, including the new album’s lead track, “A New Day for Love.” Lightning flashed in the distance during that song, reminding the crowd that the severe thunderstorms forecast for Sunday had not yet arrived.
The lightning instead was reserved for the stage; Young and Promise of the Real drew the night toward a close with an incendiary version of “Down By the River” (a song the opening band, Puss n Boots, covers on its recent album “No Fools, No Fun”). Young’s take highlighted that otherworldly sound he’s always squeezed out of his guitar, as if the instrument is a wailing, living beast and not a collection of wood and wire. This old man still has a barrelful of energy.
It seemed like a great place to end the night two hours after the concert began. “We’ve got 15 minutes, so we’re going to use every second of it,” Young told the crowd, turning those 15 minutes before the 11 p.m. curfew into 25 minutes of de facto encore that included a couple of songs from “The Monsanto Years,” the title track and “Workin’ Man.” The night ended with Young pumping his fist in the air, giving his band a group hug and walking off the stage like a man who had just conquered a state he was long overdue to visit.
Puss n Boots played a relaxed and engaging 40-minute opening set of country-folk originals as well as covers by the likes of Doc Watson and Tom Paxton. The trio has a couple of draws that likely left a few fans wanting to see Puss n Boots as much as they wanted to see Neil Young – hugely popular vocalist Norah Jones and bass player Catherine Popper, who became a big hit with local fans during her two-year tenure with the Vermont-born rock band Grace Potter & the Nocturnals.
Popper left the band in 2011 but still has a fondness for Vermont, and vice versa. “It’s nice to show up to Burlington and always see familiar faces,” she told the crowd.
Originally Published: Burlington Free Press