Moral outrage, and its frequent companion, righteous indignation, have played crucial roles in rock ‘n’ roll since political and social commentary joined the musical conversation in the 1960s, the jumping off point in the careers of all six acts tapped to play the inaugural Desert Trip festival in Indio.
But both emotions had been in short supply, outwardly anyway, during sets from Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones on Friday’s opening day of music, but the scales tipped in the direction of balance on Saturday as Neil Young & the Promise of the Real brought both to bear during an intensely powerful performance.
There was more than a touch of irony in that performance coming from Young, who told The Times shortly after the Desert Trip lineup was announced, “It’s just another gig. A well-paying gig, but just another gig.”
Even before the veteran Canadian singer, songwriter, activist and provocateur took the stage, it was obvious Young had something on his mind. The expansive Desert Trip stage — at least a football field wide — was decorated with a gargantuan burlap seed sack (marked Made in Indio, CA) and was flanked by a pair of equally imposing Native American tepees, with four smaller ones on the stage itself.
With no introduction, Young arrived on stage alone, sat at the piano and offered up “After the Gold Rush,” his 1970 anthem to ecological responsibility. He urgently sang its haunting chorus, which updated with the arrival of the new millennium, “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century.”
His most recent album, “Earth,” also addresses humanity’s relationship with nature, and he sat at his pump organ to share the aching ballad “Mother Earth”: “How long can you live and not receive?/And feed this world ruled by greed.”
Following the opening salvo of a handful of solo acoustic numbers, he brought on the Promise of the Real, the young rock outfit that includes Willie Nelson’s son Lukas and, often, Micah Nelson.
Young himself continued with acoustic guitar and harmonica, gradually upping the emotional intensity and musical amperage until he called for Old Black, his favorite Gibson electric guitar, for furious workouts on cornerstone numbers from his deep catalog including “Powderfinger” and “Down By the River,” in which he engaged with Lukas Nelson on scorching guitar duets.
Young has never shied from speaking what’s on his mind, even when the resulting songs end up more topical than artful. But this time around, several new songs he included suggest he’s reconnected with the poetic music that’s occasionally gone missing in action when he had something he needed to say in the moment.
He even swapped out the final verse in his 1989 anthem “Rockin’ in the Free World,” the one quoting President George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” slogan for a new one directly attacking the fallout from corporate greed as Young sees it
Yet Young also weaved in some of his most disarming numbers, as if to assuage any fears he was mounting his soap box for good. “Harvest Moon” came across as endearing as ever, and his 1974 song “Walk On” was a bit of infectious rock ‘n’ roll that fleshed out the dimensions of his set.
His voice was in exceptional shape, and the Desert Trip sound system served him exquisitely, with volume, instrumental clarity and sonic detail in near-ideal balance. The Promise of the Real gave Young all the instrumental firepower he needed to get his message across potently.
By combining passion, energy and stinging content, Young served up a deeply rewarding performance completely befitting a new music festival widely touted as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event.
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