Neil Young ain't got time for small talk, nor small gestures. Subtlety is a young man's game, and the craggy Canadian is now a lot like the old man he sang about in 1972. Touring in support of The Monsanto Years, an album-length harangue against the agrochemical monolith of the title, Young opened his stop at the University of Portland's basketball gym by sending out two stagehands in farmer costumes to spread seeds across the stage. A while later, actors in Hazmat suits appeared to shroud him in "pesticides" and gesticulate menacingly at the crowd. To Young's credit, in the entire three-hour set, there were no extended between-song rants, but there hardly needed to be—not when the new songs include lyrics like, "Supreme Court in session made a new law/GMO seeds and patents had a fatal flaw/Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas worked for Monsanto!"
Of course, while the message might be delivered with a heavier hand these days, neither the theatricality nor the activism is new for Young, who turns 70 in November. Using the faux-farmhands as a smokescreen, he slid surreptitiously behind a piano, pawing the opening chords of his 45-year-old environmentalist daydream "After the Gold Rush" before hardly anyone knew he was there, updating the refrain to underscore just how long he's been fighting this particular fight: "Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century." Clad in all-black, with a battered fedora giving him the look of an Old West drifter, Young spent the first part of the show alone, pacing the stage with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, singing "Heart of Gold" and "Comes a Time" almost to himself—realizing he'd been ignoring the audience, he stopped "Old Man" briefly to say hello—his creaky-floorboard of a voice proving stunningly well-preserved…as well-preserved as someone with Neil Young's voice can be, anyway.
It got exponentially louder from there, in both volume and message. With Lukas "Son of Willie" Nelson's Promise of the Real serving as his Crazy Horse stand-in, Young built from the country-rock amble of "Hold Back the Tears" and "Out on the Weekend"—slightly Jimmy Buffetized by the band's superfluous bongo player—to the molten guitar noise that made him a grunge-era hero so gradually most in attendance probably didn't realize they needed earplugs until they tried sleeping over the lingering din later that night. In between were several songs from The Monsanto Years, which Young—stomping, soloing and circling up with his young backing musicians—delivered with as much righteous anger as the takes on "Alabama" and "Southern Man." None of it, though, measured up to the thunderous finale of "Love and Only Love." Stretching out for what seemed like half an hour, the song roared, rumbled and quaked, and in its distressed sonics managed to conjure the fury of nature more than anything he sang all night.