A Gold Rush to remember

Young's search for heart of gold comes to Bethel

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  • Neil Young performs at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on Saturday, July 18, while backed by Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. Photo provided courtesy of Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

  • Neil Young performs at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on July 18. Photo provided by Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

By Nathan Mayberg

When Neil Young showed up at Bethel Woods, the site of Woodstock where he became internationally famous in 1969 as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, you couldn't expect a normal show.

It was apparent Saturday night at Bethel as Young played the first few notes on the piano to his 1969 song “After the Gold Rush,” that this was not going to be an ordinary concert.

Young began his set in front of about 13,000 fans with a flurry of his early hits, including “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man,” bringing the crowd into near euphoria by the time the set climaxed in a powerful sea of epics like “Everybody Knows this is Nowhere,” “Words” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” seminal powerhouse performances that were vintage Young.

Young was backed by the band Promise of the Real, which features Lukas and Micah Wilson, the sons of country legend Willie Nelson.

Young and the elder Nelson are close friends who played together at the Farm Aid Concerts Nelson started.

The band recalled the early aura of his longtime backing band Crazy Horse.

When the group backed up Young on “Cowgirl in the Sand,” it was almost as if the same backing vocals from 1969 had reappeared.

The band sounded like it had been listening to Neil Young records on heavy rotation every day for their whole lives to play as tight as they did with the band leader.

Perhaps no other group of musicians could have filled in as genuinely as this group. According to a history of Wilson, he met the drummer of his band at a Neil Young concert.

This was a full-scale soul baring performance by Young with three hours of vintage tunes that at once captured the glory of Young's greatest songs, as well as his newer protest-focused tunes.

Those newer songs included plenty of shots at Starbucks for serving food with genetically modified organisms.

His main target is the GMO company Monsanto, thus his latest album is titled "The Monsanto Years."

He also sung about boarded up main streets and Walmart relying on part-time workers who aren't given benefits.

Young’s voice hardly lost any of its familiar luster as he powered home on the guitar with loud extended solos.

Young bounced around the stage energetically like somebody half his age (69) going through a metamorphic, religious experience. That may have transferred to some of his fans as well.

Young left no stone unturned as he emptied every ounce of his sweat onto the stage for the fans.

As he lead his group of 20- and 30-something musicians into solos and weaving guitar work, it was clear Young is in charge and the wave of rhythm flows through him. The backing band follows Young wherever he goes, playing in awe and admiration of him but also as peers who are up to the task.

Make no mistake about it. If the backing band had failed on Saturday, the show would have been a failure as well.

Instead, they were a resounding, dynamic success.

They were equally skilled at playing as they were at playing his iconic love song "Harvest Moon" from his same-titled 1992 album as they were at playing the grunge-sounding "Love and Only Love" from his 1990 album "Ragged Glory."

When Young sings “hello woman of my dreams, this is not the way it seems” on “Cowgirl in the Sand,” or on the '70s song "Winterlong" sings "I waited for you winterlong" and "if things should ever turn out wrong and all the love we had is gone, it won't be easy on that day," a romantic can't help but feel the chills and acknowledge Young's skills at writing love songs. You also wonder who was that woman of his dreams and who did he wait for all winter, or one might wonder about the person in their dreams.

For a few moments on Saturday, Young recalled his time at the historic Woodstock concert 46 years ago that forever changed history.

He had produced critically acclaimed solo albums and played with Buffalo Springfield, but this was his first show with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

He remembered being flown to the show from a nearby hotel with the late Jimi Hendrix in a helicopter.

His love, memory and reverence for the great Hendrix are felt on his song “Hank to Hendrix,” which he played in top form Saturday.

While the song mentions Hank (Williams), Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe and Maddona, the song is at its heart, like many Young songs, a love song.

When he sang “I never believed in much, but I believed in you,” one had to wonder if a better line has been written.

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