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“You start down in the Shire, and by the end, you’re in the crater of Mount Doom.” So said Micah Nelson last year of Neil Young’s latest, epic touring show. (Together with his brother Lukas, this son of Willie fronts the great man’s backing group, Promise of the Real.) Even if the 70-year-old Canadian is nobody’s idea of a retiring hobbit, the Tolkien analogy isn’t a bad one for a mighty, often mesmerising yarn of a gig that sweeps from heart-sore balladry to whammy-hammering electric guitar jams — with a touch of Manichean panto thrown in.
It begins with two figures scattering seeds (“hurrah!”); later, three others in hazmat gear spray pesticides (“boo!”). Besides the title track of 2015’s GM-crops-trashing, corporate-greed-bashing concept album The Monsanto Years and the splashy, rowdy newie “Seed Justice”, that’s the extent of the agitprop, although the star’s eco-sympathies frame the opening movingly. A downlight reveals Young, solo, at a stand-up piano. That famously reedy voice — perhaps more watery, but still clear — launches into “After the Gold Rush” with an elder’s conviction. The updated lyric “Look at Mother Nature on the run, in the 21st century” rings out over Young’s filigree playing. “Heart of Gold”, on acoustic guitar, has a stoic’s dignity and an old rebel’s defiance. A pump organ, meanwhile, gives a ceremonial air to the lamentation “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)”.
With his band now on board, “Out on the Weekend” seems more leisurely drive than drifter’s escape: the incongruous patter of congas from the percussionist has me imagining Young and new squeeze Daryl Hannah pootling down to Acapulco. In fact, this mellow middle section is rather too sweetened with soft-focus nostalgia. It’s a relief when Young straps on his Gretsch White Falcon for the baleful stew of “Alabama”, and the jamming really gets under way.
The riffing becomes truly immersive once Young switches to “Old Black”, his 1953 Les Paul. “Love to Burn” manages to be thunderous and meditative; “Mansion on the Hill” giddily consoling; the rarely heard “Revolution Blues” still menacing and magnificently bitter. As with the best journeys, it’s not the arriving that counts but the getting there.