By Richard Skanse

No one could ever mistake Neil Young for an “unknown” — let alone unappreciated — legend in his own time. But a duly celebrated legend sometimes taken for granted? All too easily. The artist who once opined in song that it’s better to burn out than to fade away instead picked option “C”: Never stop moving or creating. Old “Shakey” may not tour quite as much as Dylan, but even if he doesn’t play your town every year, odds are he’s out there rocking somewhere. And much like his longtime friend Willie Nelson, he’s no slacker when it comes to recording, either; between new projects and archive releases, he cranks out albums at a try-and-keep-up pace that demands either rigorous devotion or judicious selection from even his most loyal fans. Can one call themselves a true Neil Young fan if they happily swallowed all 87-minutes of 2012’s giant Psychedelic Pill, but took a pass on downloading his deliberately lo-fi, Voice-o-Graph booth-recorded A Letter Home onto their $400 Pono? Arguably, yes. Ditto anyone who ponied up for 2015’s admirably passionate but unapologetically didactic The Monsanto Years, but maybe harbored reservations about the supporting tour: Who wants to endure an evening of (presumably) song after song about the evils of GMOs when one can just sit that one out and count on catching the guy on his next time around?

Well, not to be insensitive, but go ahead and ask the nearest Prince fan how that sort of planning can pan out (worst case scenario). But better yet, just ask anyone who did attend Young’s show Tuesday night at Whitewater Amphitheatre in New Braunfels, Texas — braving not just the possibility of proselytizing but the looming threat of torrential thunderstorms for a chance to hear the 70-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Famer do whatever the hell he damn well wanted. They were rewarded with an outdoor concert experience down by the banks of the Guadalupe River so transcendently riveting and flat-out epic — not to mention rain and lecture free — that the evening’s two-song cameo by Willie Nelson and assertive opening set by the estimable Lucinda Williams barely made the highlight reel.

Lucinda Williams and Buick 6 guitarist Stuart Mathis (Photo by Richard Skanse)

Lucinda Williams and Buick 6 guitarist Stuart Mathis (Photo by Richard Skanse)

That’s not a knock against Williams (or Willie, for that matter). Long established as one of America’s greatest songwriters and a formidable headliner in her own right, Williams stepped into Tuesday evening’s support slot hot off several sold-out area shows of her own, having packed Austin’s Hogg Memorial Auditorium just 24 hours prior and the nearby Gruene Hall two nights in a row over the weekend. Those shows doubtless showcased a lot more of the depth and breadth of her catalog (and certainly more from her back-to-back recent double albums, 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone and this year’s The Ghosts of Highway 20), but Williams actually excels at making the most out of a 45-minute set. This wasn’t quite the “follow that!” gauntlet I once saw her throw down in front of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers right after Car Wheels on a Gravel Road came out, but she had the crowd snared from the extended, snaky groove laid down from the opening one-two punch of “Protection” and “West Memphis” through to the always bullet-proof “Joy.” Her lean-and-mean backing band, Buick 6 — guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton, and drummer Butch Norton — certainly had a lot to do with that, but Williams herself was in exceptionally confident voice, her enunciation strong and clear on the new album’s “Dust” (adapted from a poem by her late father) and slurred with just the right amount of fury for the seething “Changed the Locks” and louche drawl for the hot-and-bothered peaks of “Essence.” Even the lowly “Honey Bee” — the closest Williams has ever come to writing her own “Wiggle Wiggle” — stung like a contender.

But there would be no upstaging the main event on this night. Although Young would be accompanied for most of his set by Promise of the Real, the California-based band he recruited for The Monsanto Years, he opened solo — and likely could have carried on just fine that way until curfew, based on the crowd’s awed reaction to both the startling clarity and beauty of his one-of-a-kind, warbling tenor cutting through the warm evening air and the disarming manner in which he so casually ticked off a handful of his best-loved songs right out of the gate: “After the Gold Rush,” “Heart of Gold,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” and “Long May You Run.” And contrary to the ornery, get-off-my-lawn vibe he can sometimes give off, he was chatty, amiable and charmingly self-effacing. A couple of tell-tale notes into “Heart of Gold,” he stopped short and chastised himself for having the wrong harmonica in his harp rack — or was it the right harp, upside down? “Luckily, I happen to know this song really well,” he offered with a chuckle and shake of his head, then fixed the matter and started again. “So much for the element of surprise!” After the utterly sublime “Long May You Run,” Young handed his acoustic to his guitar tech and noted with pride, “That guitar used to be belong to Hank Williams … I have a feeling it might have been played in Texas before.” He then finished the solo set with a haunting, harmonica and pipe-organ rendition of “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem),” the first of three songs plucked throughout the night from 1990’s Ragged Glory.

That album, like a sizable chunk of Young’s discography and countless road runs in the past, featured the mighty Crazy Horse. But the lithe, dextrous young band that joined him right after “Mother Earth” — emerging through a cloud of faux pesticide sprayed by two Hazmat-suited stagehands dressed as ominous Monsanto goons — was an entirely different animal.

Neil Young and Promise of the Real, down by the river. (Photo by Richard Skanse)

Neil Young and Promise of the Real, down by the river. (Photo by Richard Skanse)

Led by Lukas Nelson (son of Willie), Promise of the Real already had a handful of recordings, a growing following and an excellent full-length third album in the can when Young recruited them for the recording of The Monsanto Years (after having jammed with Lukas and his brother Micah at a FarmAid concert). That since-released third POTR album, this March’s Something Real, is a dazzling showcase for Lukas’ own lead guitar, frontman, and songwriting chops, but one can only hope the band and Young work more together in the future, because their symbiotic chemistry on record and especially onstage is undeniable. The five-piece band — Lukas and Micah on guitars, bassist Corey McCormick, drummer Anthony Logerfo, and percussionist Tato Melgar, all a good 30 years or more younger than Young — brings a fleet-footed sense of quicksilver lightning to the material in contrast to Crazy Horse’s patented stomp and wrecking-ball thunder. Mind, the difference wasn’t always that striking, in part because it was immediately clear the younger players are no strangers to the classic albums and probably many a Neil Young and Crazy Horse gig as fans themselves; but it was just enough to color even the most familiar old anthems with a shimmery new coat of paint — and their unabashed enthusiasm at getting to play with one of their heroes clearly rubbed off on Young himself, given the big-ass grin he broke out early and often.

But regardless of who’s sharing the stage with him, it’s still Young holding the reins from within the eye of the storm, his own guitar a rolling tempest of squalling feedback and elemental fury. He held the chaos at bay for the better part of an hour, easing the band and crowd alike through the pastoral fields of Harvest (“Out on the Weekend”), Harvest Moon (“Unknown Legend”) and the title track from Comes a Time. He then invited Lukas and Micah’s famous dad out for a brief but ecstatically received guest spot. Young and the Red Headed Stranger — three days shy of his 83rd birthday — reprised their 1985 duet, “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” (from Young’s Old Ways), followed by a tribute to the late Merle Haggard via a shaggy but heartfelt, Trigger-heavy tumble through “Okie from Muskogee.”

With or without Willie (who waved goodbye right after “Okie”), Young and Promise of the Real easily could have kept it country for the rest of the night (especially in front of a Texas crowd). But somewhere between the jangling lope of “Walk On” and the long, rolling boil of “Words (Between the Lines of Age),” the set took a hard turn into the breach and really took off.

“You there, in the Rust Never Sleeps shirt — that’s beautiful,” Young said after “Words,” pointing to a fan in the front row. “Is that an original? Were you there? I was there! Well, you look like an original, whether the shirt is or not.” He paused and smiled fondly. “That was a crazy horse, wasn’t it?” And with that, he opened the flood gates for an outright biblical, 22-minute jam through “Down By the River” that all but washed away everything that came before, with Young and Lukas playing alternately searing and shivering leads off each other like two feral animals circling the last patch of dry ground. The escalating tension was riveting, matched only by the explosive release of the chorus: “Down by the river, I shot my baby …” You couldn’t hear them over the band and the several thousand fans, but even the bullfrogs in the Guadalupe less than a hundred yards behind the stage were probably singing along to that one.

Although “Down By the River” was undeniably the entire show’s piece de resistance, the home stretch was anything but a downhill slog. The strident — and deafening — “Seed Justice” (aka “I Won’t Quit”), an as-yet-unreleased song that Young premiered back in September at FarmAid, served as a wholly satisfying stand-in for absent warhorse “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and “Monsanto Years” — which turned out to be the only track from the new album played all night — proved it holds up far better as a smart, stand-alone protest anthem than it does on an entire record beating the same message into the ground. Alongside those two newer songs were three choice album cuts that neatly counter-balanced the evening’s hit-heavy opening salvo: Ragged Glory’s rollicking “Country Home” and “Love and Only Love” (another long, swirling jam), and a welcome trip back to 1974’s excellent but often overlooked On the Beach for the encore, the decidedly unsettling “Revolution Blues.”

Doubtless, some in the audience might have hoped for something more familiar along the lines of “Hey, Hey, My, My” or “Like a Hurricane” to bookend the mini “best of” run that opened the set. But “Revolution Blues,” a spiky, powder-keg of a sleeper track loaded with menace and none-too-subtle threats (“We live in a trailer at the edge of town / you never see us cause we don’t come around / we got 25 rifles to keep the population down …”) was the perfect capstone for a night that proved just how unwise it is to expect anything but the unexpected from Neil Young. And no matter what he’s preaching or singing or what horse he rides in on, as long as this legend runs, you damn well better believe he’s still worth paying heed.

Lucinda Williams Setlist

  1. “Protection”
  2. “West Memphis”
  3. “Drunken Angel”
  4. “Dust”
  5. “Changed the Locks”
  6. “Essence”
  7. “Honey Bee”
  8. “Joy”
  9. “Get Right with God”

Neil Young & Promise of the Real Setlist

  1. “After the Gold Rush” (Neil solo)
  2. “Heart of Gold” (solo)
  3. “The Needle and the Damage Done” (solo)
  4. “Long May You Run” (solo)
  5. “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” (solo)
  6. “Out on the Weekend”
  7. “Unknown Legend”
  8. “Someday”
  9. “Comes a Time”
  10. “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” (w/ Willie Nelson)
  11. “Okie From Muskogee” (w/ Willie Nelson)
  12. “Walk On”
  13. “Words (Between the Lines of Age)”
  14. “Down by the River”
  15. “Seed Justice” (“I Won’t Quit”)
  16. “Country Home”
  17. “Monsanto Years”
  18. “Love and Only Love”
  19. “Revolution Blues”
Young Cowboys: Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and Promise of the Real (Bill Porter Photography)

Young Cowboys: Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and Promise of the Real (Bill Porter Photography)