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Desert Trip: A harvest moon descends over Neil Young

Neil Young
Neil Young at the second weekend of Desert Trip.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

It’s hard to imagine a more poetic way to ring in Neil Young’s Saturday Desert Trip set than a cream-colored harvest moon settling in over the Empire Polo Club in the desert city of Indio.

Young, the most electric, powerful performer so far at this second weekend of Desert Trip, the mega-festival featuring the likes of the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, the Who and Roger Waters, seemed to take the cue from above. 

His set drew heavily from his 1972’s “Harvest,” his spare, lovelorn classic that bookended his wild feedback experiments and 10-minute guitar-solo seances — “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “Out on the Weekend” and “Alabama.” For an artist known for abiding no expectations on his set lists, he knew what fans wanted to hear, and, with unexpected generosity, he gave it to them.  (And of course, he played “Harvest Moon.” How could he not?)

But he also knew how to make it new.

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The enormous burlap backdrop behind his stage advertised organic seeds (agriculture issues being, of course, a longtime passion project for Young).

But Young did something that, so far, no other Desert Trip performer had done — he made classic rock rooted in land and history feel vital and modern.

For starters, his much younger band (Promise of the Real, featuring Willie Nelson’s son Lukas) knew the right line between paying alms and asserting themselves.  

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Take “Cowgirl in the Sand,” already a winding rumination on noise and loneliness on record. On Saturday, it became mountain-sized once they got hold of it.

Young and Nelson, their eyes locked onstage, dared each other to dig in harder, heavier, stranger on their guitars. It was so heavy, but so sad and alien, that it made a decades-old song drip with surprise, fear and potential. 

Young’s always felt a step ahead of his peers in that way, but it was never more pronounced than at Desert Trip, where so many other acts have been essential viewing but made no attempts to envision the future.

Even when the indisputable Sir Paul McCartney (who left a crowd at the tiny Pappy & Harriet’s dumbstruck on Thursday) brought out Rihanna for “FourFiveSeconds,” it was more an act of inter-generational respect and camaraderie than a stab at something unprecedented.  Half the Desert Trip audience only seemed vaguely aware of who she was, even if she sounded fantastic and looked genuinely humbled to be there. 

But it turns out, that for Neil Young at least, the future is nothing new.

He figured it out way back in the ‘60s and ‘70s — a world of coming dust and decay, punctuated by flashes of noise and lighting. And above it all, a harvest moon to remind us how small we are, and how lucky to be here to see it all. 

For breaking music news, follow @augustbrown on Twitter.

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