Road Trip Report: Neil Young in Telluride
I’ve seen Neil Young a lot during the past 20 or so years and, unlike my other ’60s fave Bob Dylan, he seldom fails to impress.
Whether he’s with longtime cohorts Crazy Horse, acoustic by himself or backed by other stellar bands like Pearl Jam or Booker T and the MGs, he’s always great. But last weekend’s two shows in Town Park in Telluride rose above the rest.
Granted, the mountain scene was spectacular. The setting sun illuminating golden aspen groves lining the flanks of majestic San Juan peaks would have elevated even the most mediocre of artists.
But it was Young’s cantankerous energy and his new backing band, fronted by Willie Nelson’s two sons, that made the shows memorable. The versatile band, Promise of the Real, perfectly complemented songs from all facets of Young’s long career, while their youthful exuberance seemed to energize and focus the now-70-year-old rocker. Whether it was “Harvest”-era country rock or Crazy Horse-style guitar jams, Promise of the Real nailed it.
The set lists were notable, as well. He didn’t play “Like a Hurricane.” He didn’t play “The Needle and the Damage Done.” In fact, he didn’t play a lot of songs he usually plays live. And while he did play many well-known Neil Young songs, they were choices I haven’t heard live before coupled with deep-cut gems that conjured up smile after smile.
Young took the stage solo to begin both nights, dressed in a black fedora, brown leather jacket replete with long, groovy fringe and black jeans. Without a word he sat down at the piano and both nights began with the beautiful ballad “After The Gold Rush,” and then picked up an acoustic guitar for the classic “Heart of Gold.” He continued Friday with “Long May You Run” and “Comes a Time,” while Saturday he substituted “Sugar Mountain” and “Old Man” instead of those two.
Then three men dressed in biohazard suits came onstage and seemed to fumigate it before Promise of the Real took their places for “Out On the Weekend” from the album “Harvest.” Young remained on acoustic guitar both nights during this portion of the set, which included several new songs.
On Friday, Young finally plugged in his electric guitar after a dozen or so songs and ripped into “Powderfinger,” followed by a ridiculous, nearly 30-minute version of “Love and Only Love” that reveled in the feedback and power chords Young so loves. It was a bit much to take, frankly.
But the rest of Friday’s set was awesome. It included the rarity “Vampire Blues,” a favorite of mine from the “On the Beach” record, as well as “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and, of course, “Rockin’ in the Free World.” The encores were “F-ckin’ Up,” which asks the eternal question “Why do I keep …?,” and “Cinnamon Girl.”
Saturday’s show, for some reason, featured two sets, though the band was offstage between the two for less than 10 minutes. In addition to the previously noted offerings in the first set, Young also included “Words (Between the Lines of Age),” “Walk On” and another personal favorite, “Winterlong,” which was memorably covered by the Pixies in the ’90s.
The second set was pure Crazy Horse. Except where Crazy Horse can become a bit plodding on Young’s longer jams, Promise of the Real kept it fresh and shorter. Pretty guitar fills and a more focused approach greatly benefited exceptional versions of “Down By the River,” “When You Dance I Can Really Love,” “Cortez the Killer” and “Roll Another Number (For the Road).”
The career-spanning sets felt like a warmup for Young’s historic dates this weekend and next with five other iconic acts from the ’60s, including Dylan, in Palm Springs, California. And judging by the gems served up in Telluride, it’s a good bet the “Oldchella” crowd is gonna dig the grumpy old rock star from Canada.
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