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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Concert review: Neil Young praises Spokane leaders for suing Monsanto

Neil Young performs at Farm Aid 30 in Chicago on Sept. 19, 2015. (Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP)

Seven songs into his Friday night set at the Spokane Arena, Neil Young abruptly stopped a rendition of the “Harvest” album opener “Out on the Weekend” because he realized he was holding the wrong guitar.

The audience applauded in support – after all, how often does a rock legend halt a song mid-performance? – but Young had a message for the press.

“Spokane Daily Review,” he shouted, “pick that up. Anybody covering this?”

A few songs later, Young started complaining about the Arena’s central air conditioning, another moment he felt the “Spokane Daily Review” should report. Young even suggested his own headline for the possible story: “Man complains bitterly about air conditioning.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention those incidents, since Young himself practically requested they be covered. As for the concert itself, it was an entertaining two-and-a-half-hour collection of tunes both new and old, and it also served as a tremendous showcase for Young’s virtuosic musicianship.

Young made himself heard before he was seen: After the opening notes of “After the Gold Rush” started playing in the darkness – and after two women dressed as farmers scattered seeds on the stage – the spotlight fell on Young hunkered at a piano. He got to the fireworks factory right away, tearing through “Heart of Gold,” “Comes a Time” and “Old Man,” back to back to back.

After an elegiac performance of “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” on a pipe organ, Young’s backing band Promise of the Real joined him onstage, kicking off with “Hold Back the Tears” from the 1977 leftovers album “American Stars ’n Bars.”

The last stretch of Young’s set was dominated by tracks from his new album “The Monsanto Years,” a socially conscious record named after the controversial agrochemical company. Most of the “Monsanto” songs have generally strong musical arrangements, but Young’s lyrics have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. A particularly groan-worthy sample: “When you shop for your daily bread and walk the aisles of Safeway / Find the package to catch your eye that makes you smile at Safeway.” “Ohio,” it isn’t.

That anti-corporation, anti-GMO message is obviously a noble and important one, but Young renders it repetitious: By what seemed like the thousandth reference to Monsanto, I was ready for him to move on to more substantial material. Even more heavy-handed were the men in hazmat suits who ran out onstage and sprayed pesticides into the audience.

Young did, however, applaud Spokane for suing Monsanto earlier this year. “They needed that,” he said, which engendered thunderous applause.

But beyond the sermonizing, it’s clear that Young has terrific chemistry with Promise of the Real, which is fronted by Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah Nelson. The collaboration seems to have sparked something in Young – maybe it’s their youth, maybe it’s their uncanny grasp of his back catalog – and he seemed particularly spirited onstage.

I last saw Young with his band Crazy Horse in Seattle in 2012, where he played about half as many tunes – he’s sometimes susceptible to aimless guitar noodling – and avoided his most famous songs. His Spokane set, on the other hand, featured a decent mix of radio hits and deep cuts: It was great to hear gems like “Winterlong,” “Bad Fog of Loneliness” and “Unknown Legend,” and the longer jams on classics like “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Words (Between the Lines of Age)” were expertly reigned in.

Young might not be producing the same caliber material as he was four decades ago, but he’s pushing 70 and still possesses a beautifully ragged, immediately distinct voice. I would have loved to have heard “Rockin’ in the Free World” or “Cinnamon Girl,” but Young still managed to prove why he’s still packing houses.