Feature Photo by Zack MacPherson.

A little while ago, rumours started flying that Neil Young was working on a new record with Willie Nelson’s kids. It was kind of weird, since Young released two new records in 2014: Storytone and A Letter Home

Then, in mid-April, Young played a surprise show in a small California club with Lukas Nelson’s band Promise of the Real, two sets packed with new songs about GMOs, factory farms and corporations. Fast-forward a month or two and Young’s new record with Promise of the Real drops: The Monsanto Years.

It’s a pointed record, his most pointed in years. Throughout the record, Young takes shots at anyone and everyone he sees doing wrong to the environment, to farmers and people who consume genetically modified food. Monsanto is ripped at every possible chance, but he goes after big box stores, Starbucks and even you, the listener.

For example, on “People Want to Hear About Love,” Young rips into people who don’t want to hear what he thinks is the truth: “don’t mention world poverty… people want to hear about love.” Other things people don’t want to hear about: “the Chevron millions going to the politicians,” dying fish or corporations “hijacking all your rights.” Young also makes an incredulous claim that pesticides cause autism, which frankly, I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

But taking shots isn’t new to Young. Over two decades ago, he released “This Note’s For You,” which took shots at musicians selling their music to Pepsi, politicians and such; the video showing a Michael Jackson lookalike getting set ablaze was banned from MTV.

Elsewhere on The Monsanto Years, Young rips into big box stores that are “too big to fail, too rich for jail,” courts who uphold laws for patent seeds and the lawyers who crush small farmers. In small doses, it’s provocative and interesting; taken as a whole, it becomes preachy and repetitive.

Musically, the Promise of the Real goes for a country rocking Crazy Horse vibe on the record. With Young, they stretch out on “Big Box,” and throughout they have a loose, jamming vibe. But it’s almost like they’re missing something (a pedal steel, maybe?) and sometimes sound like they’re holding back. Compared to Young’s other backing bands, they aren’t as loose as Crazy Horse and aren’t as countrified as 2005’s Prairie Wind Band.

But that’s on record. Live, they’re a different story. If they seemed hesitant on record, they let it all out live and are as exciting as any of Young’s backing bands have been in years.

I caught Young’s set at the Way Home festival in Oro-Medonte, Ontario on July 24th. The closing act on the first day, Young and the Promise of the Real played a three-hour set packed with deep cuts, old favourites and new material. It was an engaging, fun and especially exciting set.

Young opened the show with a few people dressed as farmhands, spreading seed and pretending to water plants on the stage. Young came out and played a brief acoustic set, moving from piano to guitar to a pump organ. At the end of “Mother Earth,” a bunch of roadies dressed in full-body suits came out spraying steam and smoke, covering the stage in a haze while the Promise of the Real came out.

With band in tow, Young just tore through his back catalogue. They started with the early-70s cut “Out on the Weekend,” then into some newer material and into the country-rock “Wolf Moon.”

On some of these first songs, Micah Nelson was playing his guitar with a bow or a small instrument I wasn’t able to identify: a small electric 12-string or mandolin, perhaps? Whatever it was, I thought his playing opened up a lot of space for Lukas Nelson’s playing, which was on fire throughout the show, moving from leads to rhythm as the song demanded.

After a lengthy version of “Words,” the group launched into a fiery version of “Cowgirl in the Sand,” a song which played up their strengths: guitar pyrotechnics, backing vocals and Lukas trading leads with Young. The two played off each other, with Lukas’ solos really pushing Young’s playing and the song ending with an instrumental coda that energized the Way Home crowd.

Around this point, Young produced a wooden bowl of food and started throwing stuff into the crowd. “Organic cherries,” he explained, “absolutely perfect.” Of course they are, right? They’re GMO, pesticide and corporation free.

While playing some of the new material, Young played a bit to the crowd, changing some of the words in songs like “A Rock Star…” to include Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. A little later, in “Rockin’ in the Free World,” he added some lines about corporations, too.

As noted above, the strength of this band live is how they can stretch out a song into a groove and play off each other. The best example of this came with a 20-plus minute version of “Down by the River,” where Young and Lukas traded solos with the band laying down a steady groove behind them. Throughout the song, they’d all huddle around the middle of the stage in circle, trading quick riffs and building off each other. Frankly, it was exciting stuff; I’m not sure Young’s playing has been as sharp in a while.

The set ended with a good “Love and Only Love,” with the band slowing down the music to a drone, Young leading them all towards a plant mid-stage and everyone bending down, playing music to a small, GMO-free (and maybe plastic?) plant. They all got together, thanked the audience and left before a brief encore: “Don’t Be Denied” and “Mr Soul,” after which Young spoke to a stagehand and returned to the mic:

“It’s still too early,” he said, “I think this is going to ring a bell for some of you guys out there,” launching into an explosive version of “Fuckin’ Up,” definitely a deep Crazy Horse cut but easily one of Young’s hardest rocking, most fun songs. I checked online later and it was first time this band had played it live (Young hasn’t played it in nearly two years!), but it sounded so good, you’d think they’ve been playing it every night for weeks.

Near the end of the set, I had a realization about this music, the new record and where it all seems to fit in together with Young’s catalogue. It seems preachy and maybe like something an old hippie would say, but I realized Young has always been like this: a folk singer. Like, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez used to sing even more pointed material like this, as did Young. The difference is, as they’ve aged, their politics have relaxed or dulled; if anything, Young’s are more focused and pointed than ever. He sees wrong in the world and he’s going to tell you about it, even if the audience is saying “another Monsanto song?” That’s what folk singers do.

Oh Young, you’re a strange guy sometimes. You record an album on zero-fidelity equipment, then threaten to pull your music off streaming services because it’s not high quality enough sound. Neil, I want to know: once you had the title “A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop,” did the rest of the song write itself? Do you really believe pesticides cause autism? And Young, if you’re out there, do you think The Band’s song “King Harvest,” sounds like the good old days?

Or in other words, I still don’t know if I agree with everything you’re saying on The Monsanto Years, but after seeing you live, I’m glad you’re still saying it.

Setlist:

Acoustic set: “After the Goldrush” / “Heart of Gold” / “Helpless / Mother Earth”

Electric: “Out on the Weekend” / “Unknown Legend” / “From Hank to Hendrix” / “Wolf Moon” / “Words” / “Winterlong” / “Cowgirl in the Sand” / “A Rock Star Bucks A Starbucks” / “People Want to Hear About Love” / “A New Day For Love” / “Down By the River” / “Workin’ Man” / “Big Box” / “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” / “Rockin in the Free World” / “Monsanto Years” / “Love and Only Love”

Encores: “Don’t Be Denied” / “Mr Soul” / “Fuckin’ Up”

Neil Young’s Website

WayHome’s Website

Follow M. Milner on Twitter

Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.