Alone on the darkened stage, sitting at a rickety old piano under a single spotlight, with a black cowboy hat almost obscuring his signature sideburns, legendary rocker Neil Young delicately delivered his haunting ballad “After the Gold Rush” to open his sold-out show at the Adams Center on Thursday night.
The more than 7,000 fans who had been previously occupied with finding their seats, getting a beer or chatting with friends suddenly stopped in their tracks, mesmerized by Young’s unmistakable voice cutting through the crowded University of Montana gym's cavernous interior.
Young was in town to kick off a new West Coast tour to support his most recent album, “The Monsanto Years,” but any fears that he wouldn’t play his greatest hits – spanning his nearly half-century of acclaimed songwriting – were quickly assuaged.
He followed the opening song up by strapping on a guitar for an up-tempo version of his 1972 hit “Heart of Gold” and dove deep into his collection of smash songs, breaking out “Old Man,” “Unknown Legend,” “Out on the Weekend” and a full-throttle “Words (Between the Lines of Age),” that had the crowd on its feet just 45 minutes into the show.
“He’s like a grandfather to me,” said one concertgoer, Russ Talmo. “I have dreams about him. He’s a blue-collar guy. He’s a man of the people.”
Talmo said he’s looked up to the musician his whole life, and if he had to pick a couple favorite songs, they’d be “Last Dance” or “Cortez the Killer.”
“ 'Mr. Soul' is a good one too,” Talmo said.
Johnny Sheehan, another fan, was there in the hopes of seeing Young perform his early work as well.
“My friend told me before the concert started it was going to be a rockin’ show, and then he comes out with 'Heart of Gold',” Sheehan said. “That was amazing.”
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Young took off his six-string and sat down at an organ for a hypnotizing version of his environmental anthem, “Oh Mother Earth,” which had almost everyone in the place spellbound in silent contemplation.
After several solo songs, Young was joined by Promise of the Real as his backing band, which is comprised of Willie Nelson’s son Lukas, who did an almost eerie impression of his father’s voice on a rendition of “Precious Memories.”
Young’s new album has been called a screed against corporate agribusiness and the environmental degradation caused by industrial use of pesticides and fertilizers, but the first half of the show only contained two songs from that record, “Wolf Moon” and “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop.”
With lyrics like “Yeah, I want my cup of coffee but I don’t want a GMO, I like to start my day of without helping Monsanto,” and “When corporate control takes over the American farm, with fascist politicians and chemical giants walking arm in arm,” it’s Young’s most issue-based album of his career. And yet, he didn’t come across as an angry old man Thursday night.
“It’s been a great September for me,” he told the crowd when he finally stopped playing long enough to speak. “I wouldn’t trade it on any other month so far.”
Young hasn’t lost the vocal ability to hit the high notes, and he swayed back and forth with his bandmates on stage, showcasing his love for live shows even as he's getting on in years.
He even managed to sneak in a reference to Montana, thereby getting a rise out of the massive crowd.
“Big Sky, I’m grateful for your parting clouds,” he sang in “Wolf Moon.”
He sounded like he meant it. Ol’ Neil’s still got it.