When It Comes To Neil Young, Tomorrow Never Knows

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You can always count on a left turn or two at a Neil Young show. Midway through his set in Nashville Thursday night, old Shakey threw in a monkey wrench during the middle of “Okie From Muskogee,” a tune he performed in tribute to the late Merle Haggard, a man he called a great poet and great American. When the chorus of the song kicked in, the band’s drummer shifted gears and proceeded to lay down a drum beat that sounded a lot like The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” John Lennon’s hypnotic paean to LSD. It was a hilarious moment, and one that served to illuminate the song’s native brilliance. “Okie,” released by Haggard in 1969 with flower power already wilting, is a tune of perpetual ironies, and one that can be listened to “1,700 different ways,” as Haggard once said.

Young also tweaked a few lyrics for good measure, including the line “We don’t take our trips on LSD,” subbing “STP” in for the classic hallucinogen, a nod to his affinity for electric-biodiesel cars. [Watch a fan-shot video of the performance below.]

The 70-year-old rock icon had come to Nashville as part of his Rebel Content tour, accompanied by his new backing band Promise Of The Real, a group of young gunners spearheaded by guitarists Lukas and Micah Nelson (sons of Willie) who backed Young on his latest studio album, The Monsanto Years. Young opened the set solo, with his voice in fine fettle, alternating on acoustic guitar, piano, and pump organ, proffering old standards like “After The Gold Rush,” “Heart Of Gold,” and “Long May You Run.” Promise of The Real then joined him for a handful of acoustic numbers — “Unknown Legend and “One Of These Days” among them — with Neil leading the charge on his 1941 Martin D-28, a guitar that was once owned by Hank Williams. “This is not a museum piece,” he told the crowd.

Nashville clearly holds special meaning for Young, who has done his share of recording in Music City through the years, with tracks from seminal albums Harvest and Comes A Time having been cut here. Shaky confessed that things looked a bit different this time around in Music City, as this marked his maiden show at Ascend Amphitheater.

“When did you build this place?” he quipped at one point, later asking, “What’s going on in the Pinnacle?”, a reference to the towering glass castle that commands the skyline behind the stage. There was also the occasional hell-scream of sirens from the street to contend with. “It’s all part of it,” Young said. “I like all sounds. It’s like animals, if you actually talk to them they look at you.”

The decibel level picked up when Neil slung on “Old Black,” his Gibson Les Paul, and launched into “Down By The River,” complete with its signature guitar wig-out. Promise Of The Real sizzled as a backing band all night, and it’s unlikely there were many in the crowd who lamented the absence of Crazy Horse.

Late into the set Neil & co. broke out “Powderfinger,” a Southern Gothic number about riverboat gun violence that mourns the death of a gal named Emmylou. It’s well known that he wrote “Powderfinger” for Lynyrd Skynyrd to record — Ronnie Van Zandt was killed in that famous plane crash before the band could cut it — after they facetiously called for his excommunication from all things Dixie in “Sweet Home Alabama,” a song that Neil has always claimed to love. One song Young no longer loves is the very one that spawned the Skynyrd tune, his own “Alabama,” which he hasn’t performed live since the late ’70s. “I don’t like my words [on “Alabama”] when I listen to it today,” he wrote in his autobiography Waging Heavy Peace. “They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, easy to misconstrue.” 

The delights of “Powderfinger” were not easily misconstrued, notwithstanding the song’s historical ironies. It was one of the night’s highlights, to be sure, and the perfect soundtrack for a spring evening spent along the Cumberland River.