Against odds, the Chiles Center turned out to be a pretty great place to see the 69-year-old folker/rocker, allowing for better sightlines than the Schnitz and for better sound than the cavernous Keller, the downtown auditoriums where Neil performed his previous two Portland shows. While the Chiles Center’s concession stand didn’t get the memo about Young’s anti-Starbucks stance—and, to the chagrin of many of the grizzled rockers in attendance, didn’t serve a drop of beer—the layout of the room allowed for the entire crowd (which I estimated to be somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000) to all be relatively close to the music.
And it was a phenomenal performance. Young was in fantastic voice throughout the night, but more than that, he seemed fully invigorated by his much younger backing band, staging a career-spanning show that began in a quiet acoustic format, then unfurled over the course of nearly three hours into volcanic, earsplitting rock. It was undoubtedly one of the best shows I’ve ever seen by Young, who I’ve seen close to 20 times over the years.
Promise of the Real—whose ranks contain two of Willie Nelson’s offspring, guitarists Lucas and Micah Nelson—ably clipped along to a short set of Young’s folk-country nuggets, featuring prairie ballads like Harvest’s “Out on the Weekend” and the gorgeous, rarely heard “Western Hero” from 1994’s Sleeps with Angels. It also featured one of the Nelsons taking the vocal mic for a rendition of "September Song," a slightly drippy Kurt Weill song that Papa Willie famously did on 1978's Stardust; Nelson the lesser sounded eerily like his old man as Young took Trigger's part on acoustic guitar. Young then strapped on his Gretsch White Falcon, turning up the juice for a rambling “Words,” a slightly-too-slow rendition of “Walk On,” and an absolutely gorgeous “Winterlong,” which felt haunted by the ghost of Young’s longtime collaborator, pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith.
He saved the true cataclysm for the set’s final song, a whopping, elemental version of “Love and Only Love” that seemed to stretch on for nearly 30 minutes. Delving into free-form avant-noise with Young simultaneously summoning and exorcising the shrieking demons from his ancient Gibson, it was an absolutely riveting thing to witness. When the song reached its final wrenching chorus, Young, without saying a word, led his cohorts into a long extended coda of sustained notes, feedback, intermittent crashes of noise, periods of silence, and echoing thunder. Reminiscent of the live recordings that sourced Young's 1990 experimental album Arc, it was absolutely stunning and almost painfully suspenseful. It was proof that Young, despite the recent criticism he’s received for his many projects and the tabloid-feeding developments in his personal life, doesn’t need to answer to anybody on a musical level. His gifts remain undeniable and undiminished.
The band returned for a short encore of a rave-up version of “Fuckin’ Up,” before Young bid the crowd goodnight. “I like what you’ve done with the place,” he said mysteriously. “We’ll be back.” Let’s hope so, and soon.