Neil Young projects start out in so many different directions – an album of orchestral and solo versions of the same songs here, a live album with the band Promise of the Real mixed with animal sounds there – that it can be hard to figure out how most of them end up in the same place. Same with a lot of his shows. Thursday (Sept. 27) night at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, Young and Promise of the Real started out tentatively exploring some of Young’s lesser-known songs and even took detours into his backing band’s material (Lukas Nelson and his brother Micah sang a song each). By the end of the show, though, they were jamming like a slightly more countrified Crazy Horse.
This show, part of a sort of mini-tour after Young’s Sept. 22 set at Farm Aid, was refreshingly different from Earth, the 2016 live set intercut with occasional animal sounds. There, Young guided Promise of the Real through a set that leaned heavily on songs from The Monsanto Years, the previous year’s concept album about industrial agriculture. (Spoiler alert: He’s against it.) Now the band coheres more as a unit, the mix of material feels more natural, and the crickets have been left to Buddy Holly – the only creatures at the Capitol were rock n’ roll animals, and they roared.
They took some time to get warmed up, though. Young opened with “Out on the Weekend,” then got mellow with “World on a String” “Albuquerque,” and “Speakin’ Out” – the last of which he played on piano. “When you’re a legend like him,” said a concertgoer who wanted to rock, “you can do whatever you want.”
He didn’t have to wait long. Young turned “Love to Burn” and “Love and Only Love” into frenzied jams. Riffs repeated, feedback roared, and time itself seemed to slow down. “It’s all one song,” Young once said about the music he plays with Crazy Horse, and that was true for much of the Capitol show as well. Young is 72 and the twentysomethings in Promise do a pretty good job keeping up with him.
At its best, Promise of the Real can deliver nuance as well as noise, and “Heart of Gold” and “From Hank to Hendrix” sounded soulful. Performing two of their own songs was a gutsy choice, especially because Young has always been a better band leader than band member. Crazy Horse once had its own career – the band’s first album is a stone-cold classic – but onstage it was always Young’s band. Promise of the Real doesn’t come across that way, maybe just because they’re a generation younger, but they don’t seem like outside partners (in the way that Pearl Jam was) either. Gradually, they seem to be becoming one of the best bands Young has ever worked with – furious enough to rock like Crazy Horse, country enough to handle his folkier side.
Young never stopped throwing curveballs – he never will – and after “Powderfinger” he tossed in “Children of Destiny,” the single from his new album with Promise, The Visitor. Then it was on to “Ohio,” a ferocious “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and an encore of “Mansion on the Hill,” with its apt chorus – “psychedelic music fills the air.” There was no mention of Monsanto or animal noises. Big ideas shift, and band members come and go, but at the core of Young’s art, it’s all one song – incandescent and alive with a strange mix of joy and rage.