Let’s be real. There’s a good chance human civilization has about half a century left until we render the world inhospitable. It’s almost impossible to imagine a way in which we could disentangle ourselves from the gridlock of our unsustainable ways in time to meet the needs of unborn billions, or in time to put the brakes on a rapidly accelerating climate shift. Certainly not, at least, when so much power seems to rest in the hands of a greedy few, or in the hands of a populace too afraid or too numbed to disturb the peace.
But even when doomsday seems nigh and the temperatures fume into the triple digits in October, a folk hero comes along and promises the chance of something better. Neil Young, still a firebrand after half a century of making some of the most unapologetic rock of all time, came to the Santa Barbara Bowl on October 10 with the Promise of the Real to deliver such a pledge. He came out solo first, beginning with ineffably poignant renditions of “After The Gold Rush,” “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue),” and “Mother Earth,” his voice perhaps even finer now than ever, with the years to match his woeful old soul. Being a big fan like most in the audience, it’s hard to overstate or even describe the dreamlike and emotional awe that befell the crowd. It was hard to believe it was real.
Reality is a subject that Young and the Promise of the Real like to sing about. Young admits it’s unfashionable, as he sings on his burner of a new song, “People Want to Hear About Love,” a surprising set highlight. The night had its elements of surprising theatricality, too, like when a team of Tyvek-suited crop-dusters smoked the stage to make way for the band, or when a pair of farmhands spread seeds across the stage. The biggest moment of drama came when Young unveiled a picnic basket filled with seeds. “They’re very alive, and don’t like to be controlled,” he said, before he and band disseminated organic seed packets through the crowd in defiance of the recently passed California Seed Law. He asked any police or security guards to apprehend him. “I’d love to be arrested for this. I’m ready to go as soon as I’m finished playing this show,” he said.
And the band knew how to play. Epics like “Down by the River” and “Love and Only Love” were shredding rock vortexes, as hypnotic and rocking and loud as anything this reviewer has ever heard. Promise Of The Real packed real talent and added some interesting new accents to songs, like beautiful bowed guitar on “Out On The Weekend.” Lukas Nelson wowed with a rendition of “September Song,” a song his dad Willie once covered – another highlight of the night. If rock’n’roll will never die, as Young sings, then the Nelsons and the Promise of the Real are great inheritors to the cause.
“I certainly hope we offend somebody,” Young said. He proved just how rare an artist he is, especially nowadays – does anyone care to offend anybody anymore? The sentiment could seem quaint, especially if their methods of dissent are through seed packets and so-called “dad rock” music, but he’s a wise village elder; hardly anyone else is addressing these subjects. And there was nothing quaint about this band or Young as a performer; he still out-rocks just about everyone born since he was, as he proved on the show’s finale, “F*!#in’ Up.” When he and the Nelsons laid their broken-stringed guitars to rest, they were still sputtering their last waves of feedback.
“Look at mother nature on the run in the twenty-first century,” Young sang at the show’s opening. Who knows if this kind of protest rock really moves mountains, or just makes us feel like we can; but it is heartening to know that there is someone bearing witness at the very least, should we look upon these times and see missed opportunities in our policies and lifestyles. Young, in his undying rock spirit, asks us to be more, to give our children the promise of something more real and something more free, and that night, he gave us a very real hope that we still can.