Neil Young is ragged, raw in curfew-breaking DTE show

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Neil Young built from a whisper to a roar during his powerful 145-minute performance at DTE Energy Music Theatre Tuesday night, singing stark songs about life, love and the world in which we live.

He didn’t speak much to the audience, save for the plainspoken, remarkably to-the-point messages in his songs. There’s no having to decode lines like “when corporate control takes over the American farm/ with fascist politicians and chemical giants walking arm in arm” (“A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop”) or “don’t say people don’t vote because they don’t trust the candidates/ people want to hear about love” (“People Want to Hear About Love”), it’s all spelled out in plain English: Farmers are dying, politicians are evil, corporations are even worse.

Oh, and rules were made to be broken: Young went 10 minutes over DTE’s mandatory 11 p.m. curfew, racking up a $10,000 fine as per the venue’s $1,000-per-minute-past-11 rule. (“Thank you, Pine Knob!” Young said at the end of the night.)

Young’s 23-song show drew heavily from his latest album “The Monsanto Years,” a vicious screed against the St. Louis-based multi-billion dollar chemical company. Young recorded the album with Promise of the Real, the California-based band that backed him at Tuesday’s show, and the band — which is fronted by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas — plays like a younger, scrappier version of Young’s own Crazy Horse.

Young locked in with his bandmates throughout the show, jamming with them during extended breakdowns like he was 20 years younger than his 69 years. And songs such as “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” were given new life, the years falling away as Young fell into sync with his bandmates. (Young is known to be a audio junkie, and Tuesday’s show sounded nothing short of pristine.)

The show began with Young taking the stage alone, sitting at his piano for a naked version of “After the Gold Rush,” moving to center stage with his guitar and harmonica for “Heart of Gold,” “Long May You Run” and “Old Man.” He was dressed in a black shirt, black hat and was lit by a single spotlight against a plain black backdrop. He’s ragged and lived in, his voice a haunting yowl that’s only grown more honest with age. He wears his rust well.

“Mother Earth (Natural Anthem),” from 1990’s “Ragged Glory,” set the tone for much of the evening. Young pumped it out alone at an organ, singing, “respect Mother Earth and her healing ways/ or trade away our children’s days” in pained, ghostly tones. At the close of the song, he was shooed away by a team of fumigators in all-white coveralls, a bookend to the pair of farmers who took the stage earlier in the evening to spread seeds and water the potted flowers at the foot of the stage. (Give it up for performance art, everybody!)

From there, Young was joined by his bandmates, and things began to take off. The music slowly got louder, angrier and more blunt, especially the “Monsanto” material, which included seven of the album’s nine songs.

There was a sketch on “Saturday Night Live” a few years ago where Kevin Spacey played Neil Young, and the joke was how straightforward his songs’ political messages had become. (A fake song in the sketch was titled “Dear President Liar.”) The “Monsanto” songs are even more obvious — yes, “Big Box” is about big box stores and their effects on the little guys — but where they’re hit or miss on record, they sounded full-bodied at Tuesday’s show. Much of the crowd played the sit-down, stand-up game all night, but by the end of the evening most people were on their feet.

After closing the set with a rocking, foot stomping “Love and Only Love,” Young and his bandmates returned after the venue’s 11 p.m. curfew for an encore of “Don’t Be Denied” and “Roll Another Number,” a pair of early-to-mid-70s album tracks (from “Time Fades Away” and “Tonight’s the Night,” respectively).

It was an adventurous way to end the night, with Young forgoing bigger hits and tossing caution to the wind, but he long ago stopped playing other peoples’ games. Tuesday night was a show for the hardcore fans, and it was a rich reward for 40 years of loyalty.

Neil Young setlist

1. After the Gold Rush

2. Heart of Gold

3. Long May You Run

4. Old Man

5. Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)

6. Out on the Weekend

7. Unknown Legend

8. From Hank to Hendrix

9. Harvest Moon

10. Wolf Moon

11. Words (Between the Lines of Age)

12. Bad Fog of Loneliness

13. A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop

14. People Want to Hear About Love

15. A New Day for Love

16. Cowgirl in the Sand

17. Workin’ Man

18. Big Box

19. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere

20. Monsanto Years

21. Love and Only Love


22. Don’t Be Denied

23. Roll Another Number (For the Road)