Thunder and heavy rain couldn’t stop Neil Young from being his usual, cantankerous self.
With his new band, Promise of the Real, Young brought a heavy jam session to the Acura Stage on Sunday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Rather than building a solid set of popular songs, Young and the group of young guys offered up relentless solo breaks and cascading soundscapes.
Some of it worked, and it used to be that the down-tuned guitars and whirling distortion were just one side of his personality.
On Sunday, it seemed it was his entire personality — loud, proud and ready to give a middle finger to the establishment.
It’s cool to see Young lay the rock down in such a fashion, but the show wasn’t without its awkward hiccups.
Before Young arrived, a duo of women farmers threw seeds all over the stage and then threw soil in potted plants. Young played around, talking to a Native American statue and putting the mic up to it.
I felt like someone should tell Young, “Hey, dude, look around. These people are here for you in a literal pond. Maybe don’t keep them waiting.”
But this is Young.
He released masterpiece after masterpiece. “Harvest,” “After the Gold Rush,” “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” That was just the first couple of years.
But he’s always been the prickly rock guy, who can also wail on a guitar and write a brilliantly depressing song. You get one or the other. On Sunday, we got the prickly rock guy.
After the metaphor of seeding the stage, Young and the band instantly cranked it up to 10 with the opening song, “F*****’ Up.”
It set the tone for the show — Young shouting a verse, followed by him and guitarist Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, trading off guitar licks, for an extended period of time.
No matter how meandering it all seemed to be, it is cool to see Young and Nelson’s son share the stage. Promise of the Real has the chops and reverence to keep up with the aging rocker’s heavier material.
Speaking of heavy, by the second song, Young and Promise of the Real were weighing in with the bleak “Cortez the Killer.” But the song didn’t approach critical mass until Young told the stage managers to cut the side lighting.
It didn’t help that after the 10- to 15-minute jams, Young’s guitar tech was constantly coming out to take his guitar and retune it.
“It’s humid,” he said with a smile. “And this thing (his guitar) is from Canada. But if I’m going to sing about something wrong, I want my guitar to be in tune.”
Young and the band propelled into “Monsanto Years,” from the 2015 album he and the band produced. The song and album criticize the agricultural company Monsanto.
“Mother Nature and God,” Young chimed in at the end of the song, as the band went into outer space. Sounds like bombs dropping were coming from the guitars, and the spacey atmosphere continued to build.
Among the final chords, Young and another rhythm guitarist acted like they were using their guitars to water a nearby, onstage plant. It was another part of an overlong metaphor that sounded great in its first five minutes.
Young and the band also played “Country Home,” “I Won’t Quit,” “Love and Only Love” and a handful of others.
All of them started with delay, reverb and distortion — walls of sound that were hard to get to given the surroundings (thanks everyone with umbrellas way up in the air). Then once a song started, it wasn’t a sprint or a hop to the finish line.
Neil is Neil, it’s true. He’s always going to be that guy, doing his thing, releasing another protest album to a niche crowd.
But when you’re walking away in the rain, and you hear Bonnie Raitt entertaining crowds with a hit song, it’s disappointing that Young kept up his crotchety old man routine of being loud and not seeming to give a damn.
Follow Matthew Sigur on Twitter, @MatthewSigur.