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Neil Young makes his Vegas return an epic, exhaustive experience

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Full range: Young began solo before rolling into The Monsanto Years with Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real.
Photo: Erik Kabik

Four stars

Neil Young October 11, the Chelsea.

The last time Neil Young played Las Vegas, he left his new concept album in his suitcase, escaping Greendale for a journey through his past at the old Joint in 2003. In his long-overdue return Sunday night at the Cosmopolitan, the iconic rocker found a way to do both—perform material from a message-driven new record and unload a concert’s worth of classic cuts: He simply played all night.

The lengthy affair actually began before show-goers even entered the Chelsea proper, in an anteroom filled with tents offering literature on “Earth Ecology” “Freedom and Justice” and more, along with headphoned tests of Young’s digital music player, Pono. Next up: Jenny Lewis, whose twangy folk-rock went over well with the largely older audience, as did her reminder that she’s a Vegas native whose parents were once Sands lounge residents. “If I could tell my dad, who’s no longer with us, that I was here opening for Neil Young, he’d freak out,” she said.

Young, who turns 70 next month, arrived onstage a bit before 9 without fanfare, sitting at a piano to deliver a stirring solo rendition of “After the Gold Rush.” His unmistakable—and amazingly healthy—high-pitched voice continued to soar through the Chelsea once he switched to acoustic guitar (sprinkled with harmonica), standing in a mid-stage spotlight as he reeled off “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man” and “Long May You Run” before sidling up to an organ for “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem).”

Neil Young at the Chelsea

As five-man backing band Promise of the Real got into position, roadies in white Hazmat suits began spraying canisters of steam at potted plant props—as if to remind us The Monsanto Years, Young’s swipe at genetically modified foods and their proponents, would indeed make an appearance. Just not yet. The concert’s next segment teamed Young with POTR for a series of mostly deepish cuts that ranged from balmy (“Out on the Weekend,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”) to harrowing (“Words Between the Lines of Age,” which marked the first appearance of Young’s familiar fuzzy electric guitar tone).

After POTR leader Lukas Nelson took his lone lead vocal on “September Song,” a tune once recorded by his famous father Willie, the Monsanto portion of the evening began. Young made sure we knew, by singing the word “Monsanto” at least 20 times over the next half hour. Whatever your stance on GMOs, there can be no debate about the lack of subtlety in Young’s latest project, and that’s surely the point, to call out Starbucks, Chevron and Walmart so directly, listeners couldn’t possibly misinterpret the purpose. But only the most fanatical Young fan could deny that the clunky lyrical content let down some otherwise quality compositions, and the crowd had thinned noticeably before the last of four consecutive Monsanto cuts finished.

Those who left missed out on the show’s finest stretch, a noisy rock assault reminiscent of Young’s best days with Crazy Horse. It began with a monstrous “Cowgirl in the Sand,” during which Young and Nelson dueled through three long jam sections, each more vicious than the last. “Powderfinger” kept the mood dark and heavy, and the closing “Love and Only Love” challenged 1991’s killer Weld version in intensity. By the time the six men encored with “The Loner” and “Cinnamon Girl,” nearly three hours had passed, and Young had dazzled us into submission once again.

Setlist:

“After the Gold Rush”

“Heart of Gold”

“Old Man”

“Long May You Run”

“Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)”

“Out on the Weekend”

“Hold Back the Tears”

“Only Love Can Break Your Heart”

“Harvest Moon”

“Wolf Moon”

“Words (Between the Lines of Age)”

“Burned”

“Bad Fog of Loneliness”

“September Song”

“A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop”

“People Want to Hear About Love”

“Big Box”

“Monsanto Years”

“Cowgirl in the Sand”

“Workin’ Man”

“Powderfinger”

“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”

“Love and Only Love”

Encore:>

“The Loner

“Cinnamon Girl”

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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