Live and Local: Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson and Neil Young with Promise of the Real

click to enlarge Young onstage with Promise of the Real. - TRAVIS BUFFKIN
Travis Buffkin
Young onstage with Promise of the Real.

The rumor was that Willie Nelson may show up, he may pick a bit with fellow Farm Aid diplomat Neil Young. The rumor was true. But we'll get to that.

I arrived around 7:15, Lucinda Williams was already well into a loose but impressive set that had her operatic rasp sitting pretty right on top of the bullfrog croak of Stuart Mathis' guitar and wah-wah pedal in "Changed the Locks." Next was the suggestive stomper "Honey Bee" followed by "Joy."

click to enlarge Lucinda Williams in charge. - TRAVIS BUFFKIN
Travis Buffkin
Lucinda Williams in charge.

Williams, although she played few songs in a minor key, gives off the impression that if she did more numbers in the sadder mode, she'd have everybody pulling out their hair, the "Mistress of the Minor Key, they'd call her. Mathis was playing a beautiful honeysuckle-colored Gibson SG that I recently saw him utilize on the groups' Tiny Desk Concert. That means it's his guitar, he likes that guitar. I like that. 

Williams' sonic saunter and hoarse, throaty drawl brings to mind a feminine, sober Shane MacGowan – there is such a thing – singing over a mid-tempo Tom Waits tune, something like "Get Behind the Mule" or "Buzz Fledderjohn." Matched with the guitar excursions that accompanied most tunes, Williams was a great opener for Young.

click to enlarge The cranky, soulful Stuart Mathis on the right. - TRAVIS BUFFKIN
Travis Buffkin
The cranky, soulful Stuart Mathis on the right.

Time passed, the marijuana stink never left and by the end of the evening, I definitely had a contact high. It's a Neil Young show, so there were all kinds of tie-dye hippies and long-haired hobo hat-wearing hipsters, granola-eating Prius-driving techies, all around cool people. Shit ton of weed, though.

Young started his set modestly. The opening chords of "After the Gold Rush" alerted the audience to the legend in their vicinity. His voice sounded exceptional, perhaps better than on the record. Neil's never been considered a "great" singer, really not even a "good" singer, but his delivery was impressive, to the point where I forgot there was a real human playing – piano, harmonica and singing – and not some programmed player-piano-man. Typically, when Young sang "I thought about getting high," everybody cheered, like a bunch of goobers. Good vibes, though.

Young got the expected hits right out of the way before playing more recent fare with Lukas Nelson, Willie's son, and his band Promise of the Real, which also features brother Micah. "Heart of Gold" was the second solo number visited. Young had a faulty start – the harmonica was upside down. Mistakes like that always warm up a crowd that yearns to see a little humanity from their untouchable heroes.

click to enlarge Young, opening the show  alone at the piano. - TRAVIS BUFFKIN
Travis Buffkin
Young, opening the show alone at the piano.

Throughout his solo time, with Young alone on the guitar or at the piano, he sang through his harmonica mic, freeing him up to bounce around the stage. He talked to the heavens after a rousing rendition of "Long May You Run," letting the Lord know that if he wants to bring the rain, it's alright with Neil. "We need it."

He then alerted the crowd to the fact that he was playing a guitar that had been to Texas several times before, as one of Hank Williams' six-strings, a goosebump-inducing factoid.

Promise of the Real then took the stage with Young and opened up the ensemble portion of the set with "Out on the Weekend." They sounded fantastic and throughout the set, particularly on a 20-minute version of "Down By the River," the harmonious steed known as Crazy Horse was saddled by the Nelsons and their bandmates with great accuracy.   

click to enlarge Young with a spotlight for a halo. - TRAVIS BUFFKIN
Travis Buffkin
Young with a spotlight for a halo.

Then came the highlight of the night, at least for me. Without much warning Willie Nelson was produced and folks went apeshit, rightfully so. The Nelsons, Young and the rest ran through a relaxed rendition of "Are There Anymore Real Cowboys" and it looked as if Willie was calling it a day 'til Neil asked for one more. In tribute to the recently-deceased Merle Haggard, Willie and Neil played "Okie from Muskogee," the tongue-in-cheek territorial anthem from the "poet of the common man." That was it for me. To see Willie Nelson and Neil Young play a Merle Haggard song ... I'll never forget it.

The rest of the evening, however, is another story. Too much weed and dangerously close to too much guitar soloing had me dazed and yearning for a place to rest my burning feet and my aching head. Young played a total of about two-and-a-half to three hours. His guitar soloed almost half of that time. The cigar store Indian on stage winked at me on my way out. One for the books.

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