Neil Young brings the noise to Jazz Fest


Neil Young smiled and put a microphone up to the mouth of a cigar store Indian while two women in overalls tossed seeds at flowers in terra-cotta planters. Over the next two hours on the wet, windy and mud-filled final day of the 2016 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Young conjured lightning rods of droning atmosphere, synchronized with the whipping rains and winds turning the warm and humid weather into a cold, sun-absent afternoon. Later, people in HAZMAT suits sprayed a heavy dose of poison-like fog on the stage, which then cleared to reveal the band as if it was about to play something more sinister.

If Neil Young can do this at Jazz Fest, the festival should maybe consider Earth, whose down-tuned desert blues could've played right into or out of Young's set. Or New Orleans' own Mars or Eyehategod, whose families probably would love to see them on a sunny afternoon and not 4 a.m. on a Tuesday. (Alternately: Neil Young fans, if you were into that, go see them.)

With Lukas (son of Willie) Nelson's band Promise of the Real, Young built walls of sound powered by three guitars, including Young's shrapnel shredding standby Old Black, which he finger picked, wrangled reverb out of and shoved against a kick drum microphone. Nelson and the band weaved seamlessly with Young, emulating Crazy Horse's layers of guitars and locked-in instincts for rising and falling moments through each song. But Young's sharp, brittle voice still sliced through the noise.

The band's Crazy Horse-like dynamic tore into Ragged Glory 's heavy set opener "Fuckin' Up," to a harmony-filled "Country Home" and closer "Love & Only Love." Young only went as far back into his discography as 1975's Zuma, filling a dizzying 20 minutes with waves of twisted metallic solos on "Cortez the Killer." Young and Promise of the Real's 2015 album The Monsanto Years, Young's anti-establishment takedown of Big Ag, took centerstage with "Seed Justice" and the album's satirical title track.

It was a rare, radical departure compared to Young's set on the same stage in 2009, when he played nearly 20 hits and fan favorites. Maybe it was partially due to the weather, or his patience — he repeatedly hassled the Jazz Fest crew to cut off stage equipment ("Just unplug it! I don't care!"). Whether he's testing the durability of his decades-old songs, exploding them all together, or — as he did at his 2012 Voodoo Experience performance with Crazy Horse — synchronizing completely with the people sharing the stage, Young still is an inimitable player drawing power that's psychedelic, emotional, sometimes funny, sometimes delicate.

And his set proved the kinds of surprises that not only is Young still turning out — transforming nine songs into two hours of brilliant noise — but that Jazz Fest is letting happen at all.

Here's the setlist:
"Fuckin' Up"
"Cortez the Killer"
"Country Home"
"I Won't Quit"
"Seed Justice"
"Monsanto Years"
"Love & Only Love"
"Keep on Rockin' in the Free World"

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