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Monday, September 30, 2019

Neil Young's 2019 Song Setlist Diversity Hits An Alltime Career High ... yet again

Unique Songs per Year
via Sugar Mountain

Throughout Neil Young's concert career, some fans have bemoaned the lack of song diversity in his setlists from night to night and year to year. (For example, see this analysis we presented back in 2010 on the subject of Neil Young's Setlist Variation.)

Well, along comes 2019 and it's a whole new ballgame because it turns out that thus far this year, we have seen the most diverse setlists of songs ever in Neil Young's concert career. We're talking all time high. We're talkin' "Peak Neil" -- yet again.

This observation all began with a comment on Farm Aid 2019 Concert - Alpine Valley, Wisconsin by Minke:
Sure everybody noticed that – according to Sugar Mountain statistics – this year Neil Young played more different songs than in all previous years of his performing career.

112 songs in 28 shows.

He tops his 1988 record of 104 songs in a year. I am not sure what this means -- it’s only statistics, right? -- but at least it serves to demonstrate how versatile Young is, how much he continues to explore the nooks and crannies of his musical archive, and how much his recent strategy of doing short stints with various (or no) accompanying players is reflected in his song selections.

Apparently, this enables him to dig up different songs for each stint and even each concert, according to mood and taste. The amazing thing is also that he does not stick to the old stuff, but mixes his new songs in, searching for balance in his performance and blending the new with the old. He always has done that, so there is nothing new here. But it is spectacular that a singer and composer who has been around for more than 50 years still demonstrates the vitality of breaking new grounds, confronting his audiences with new songs and revitalized old songs. And he takes full advantage not only of having this huge reservoir of songs, but also of this new touring dynamic (or decreasing touring energy).

What a way to grow older as a performing artist…
Thanks so much Minke.

Actually, no, we hadn't noticed this startlingly factoid. So Minke, this really got us fired up here at TW and we had to know more. So we checked over on Sugar Mountain: Neil Young Setlists and really couldn't figure out how you came up with this discovery after surfing around a bit.

The BIG Setlist
Neil Young + Promise of the Real

Port Chester, New York - Sept, 2018

So we checked with Mr Sugar Mountain himself, Tom Hambleton, and he was just and puzzled, startled and surprised as we were by Minke's discovery. And right away, we have 2 new queries added to Sugar Mountain statistics: (Thanks Tom!)

Some other highlights of 2019 include:

Unreleased songs: 10
Eternity, Green Is Blue, Homefires, I Do, Milky Way, Olden Days, Rainbow Of Colors, She Showed Me Love, Think Of Me, Truth Kills

Debuted Songs: 9
Green Is Blue, I Do, Milky Way, Olden Days, Rainbow Of Colors, Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets), She Showed Me Love, Think Of Me, Truth Kills

3 of top 5 and 4 of top 10 years since 2015 are when Neil began playing with Promise of the Real. Clearly -- and undoubtedly -- the Nelson sons Lukas and Micah have very heavily influenced the broadening of Neil's concert setlists.

For example, over the course of just 2 concerts in Winnipeg, February 2019:

  • 35 total songs
  • 28 unique songs
  • Wonderin' - 1st concert performance since March 21, 1996
  • Distant Camera - 1st concert performance since June 2, 1999

Neil Young + Promise of the Real
Farm Aid 2019 Concert - Alpine Valley, WI
photo by thrashette
(Click photo to enlarge)

Like we (& others) said back in 2015, the Promise is REAL. The Promise is The TRUTH. So don't be denied. Otherwise, just walk on ...

Neil Young
Farm Aid 2019 Concert - Alpine Valley, WI
photo by thrashette
(Click photo to enlarge)

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At 9/30/2019 05:49:00 AM, Blogger Flyingscotzman said...

I'm rarely impressed by the diversity thing, at least not in isolation. Intensity trumps extensity every time; depth over width. And the truth is there have been some fantastic performances this year, so this is not a commentary on 2019 as a touring year.

In some ways, though, constant variation is a sign of the times: in the smart-phone age, none of us can focus for more than 5 seconds before getting restless and seeking new novelty. "Oh look, a Facebook notification or Twitter alert from Sally - let's drop everything and see what she's up to!". The spoils, more than ever, seem to go to those who can focus for a period of time and get something done, without being distracted by photos of a holiday in the Maldives.

Many of Neil's greatest touring years don't even show up in the list, 'cause he was very intensely into the songs on those tours and was mining them deeper and deeper. Conventional wisdom is that this is a less interesting approach than something that is constantly changing, but the music often tells a different story. The repetition, up to a point, seems to make the music more powerful, not less.

If a bodybuilder spends 30 seconds training every muscle in his body, in other words, he is not going to get very far. And an artist who is constantly searching and experimenting may never develop the glimmer of inspiration that is right under her nose. As with so many things, it's a balancing act.

It's always fun to go to a show not knowing at all what to expect, of course; as the Bob Dylan fans here will attest. And from the artists' point of view, that experimentation and unpredictability is a huge part of the creative process.

But equally, those same Bob Dylan fans will tell you that the constantly changing selection box of songs had grown somewhat stale in 2009, before the return to a more focused setlist in 2013. Now's the time to mention Bob's 1966 tour with The Band, one of the most legendary tours in the history of music, which saw him repeat the same setlist night after night, attacking the songs with ever-increasing intensity, reaching a peak in Manchester and later at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Neil's extraordinary 1991 tour has some parallels.

The most exciting performances are often when some momentum has been built up. So don't overlook those great versions of Like A Hurricane or Sun Green, for instance, just because they had been played 300 times in a row before that point. And "less is more" might be a cliche, but it's stood the test of time for a reason.


At 9/30/2019 05:53:00 AM, Blogger Flyingscotzman said...

(Thanks as always to Tom for doing a great job maintaining and updating the Sugar Mountain website).


At 9/30/2019 09:18:00 AM, Blogger thrasher said...

Thanks so much Scotsman.
and good points -- as always. spot on.

like Minke, we're awestruck by the productivity, creativity, and resiliency of neil's back catalog. looking at The BIG Setlist for POTR run @ Port Chester, the acoustic & electric songs depth & breadth is really impressive.

but the REAL story -- for us -- is how inspiring POTR is for Neil. he really did seem to shed years right before our very eyes over the course of an evening with the Nelson sons.

2019, when it all really got REAL.

At 9/30/2019 10:40:00 AM, Blogger Artie Fufkin said...

Something I found innarestin is that in 1974 he played 81 different tunes. That is still fairly early in his career, yet he had that much material already.

At 9/30/2019 01:16:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Saw him play 5 songs in an hour and a half many years ago. Set lists are overrated. That was intensity

At 9/30/2019 02:40:00 PM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

Grateful Dead were a band that spent entire tours working out new songs before ever entering a studio. They were searching for the sound that worked best for that particular song. For thirty years they never played a song the same way twice. A set list would occasionally change in the middle of a song, and that unpredictability was what made every show they played unique. Unique enough for people to quit their jobs and follow them to every show of a entire tour. With the Dead, there was no expectation. That was part of the draw.

With Neil, I was way more excited about hearing new material live. For me, it was always such a rush to hear a new song live first. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Needle and the Damage Done, or Alabama, or any other song I’ve heard a hundred times, but I’ll take three new songs over any of them.

I already know where Neil has been musically, what I want to hear when I see him in concert is where is he now. I hope that makes sense.


At 9/30/2019 03:23:00 PM, Blogger Babbo B. said...

@Artie: There were 38 Neil-written songs performed in 1974 (the year of the Doom Tour), most of the rest were written by other members of CSNY.

And just FWIW, that year's Sugar Mountain grid shows 91 different songs performed, not the 81 listed in the new stats category ( A quick spot check shows discrepancies for several other years as well, not sure why.

At 9/30/2019 06:41:00 PM, Blogger sugarmtn said...

@Babbo - Regarding the 81 vs 91 songs performed for 1974 - that was due to me not consistently dealing with the songs played during CSNY shows where Neil wasn't actually onstage. I think I've made it consistent now. 81 is a better number.

At 9/30/2019 08:02:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

@ Artie - good observation. now look what's happened w/ 1974 data?! h

@ Unknown - no doubt, intensity is a big factor in the neil spook canon.

As we often like to say, numbers add up to nothin'. so how might we calculate intensity? Like hurricanes? A Down bu the River that's a Category 5?.

variety vs intensity ... discuss

@ Dan - funny on Grateful Dead comparison.

A lot of the Neil lack of set variety comes from Neil heads. When every Grateful Dead setlist is totally different night to night and then very Neil set is the same night to night, the point is valid.

But GD and Neil aren't the same deal. it makes sense.

@ Babbo - some good spot checking.

@ sugarmtn - thanks for dropping by here! Nice to have some setlist expertise on the scene here.

we need to really thank Minke for doing the initial homework.

Thanks sugarmtn for the new queries to help assist in undertaking this setlist scholarship. we have a great community of rusties around he world who love a good challenge when it comes to crowdsourcing neil stats.

let's see what 2020 brings!

At 9/30/2019 10:29:00 PM, Blogger Babbo B. said...

Thanks, Tom, figured you had a good rationale (as always). Now can we get the breakdown by how soon in the setlist he says "How ya doin?"

At 10/01/2019 06:25:00 AM, Blogger Flyingscotzman said...

I'll point out that the setlist is so often a crucial part of the art form itself.

Take my favourite example of the Ragged Glory tour in 1991. And we need some context here: this is a tour that was deeply influenced by the then-current Gulf War. Now, take a look at the concluding half of the setlist for an average show from that year.

We have Cortez The Killer, the classic Neil Young story of invasion and destruction, lives torn apart by bloodshed (beautifully performed on this tour). Next up is Powderfinger, another violent invasion. Love And Only Love follows, where a "battle raged on the open page", transitioning into a gritty Rockin' In The Free World where the octave-divided lead guitar is the sound of "bombs falling, buildings collapsing on their families".

The encore consists of some much-appreciated light relief in a call-and-response Farmer John, swept aside by one of the most intense and explosive Like A Hurricane's you will ever hear; this time a story of love (or lust) blown away by a particularly violent, frenzied, man-made storm.

You can clearly see the theme here. Look at the first night of the tour in Minneapolis and you'll notice a different setlist, but one that hadn't yet reached this level of intense focus. A few weeks later in Hartford or West Point, following some experimentation, the tour has found its niche. And you can see how slotting in Sugar Mountain or Old Man would have diminished the effect.

Time and time again, it's not just what is played but what *isn't* played that is significant. A trainspotter-style fan will probably skip the recordings of the 1991 tour entirely; and miss out on some of the most thrilling drama Neil Young has ever had captured on tape.

Another fantastic example is 1989. The early electric shows had Neil playing the brand-new 'Cocaine Eyes', wearing a "Just Say No" t-shirt and concluding each night with a perverted cover of On Broadway ("gimme that crack!") swiftly followed by another song that chronicles the incineration of showbiz glitter, again courtesy of drug addiction.

Later in the year, the acoustic shows would reach their peak with Ohio, dedicated to the "Chinese hero" who had recently stood in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square, followed by Rockin' In The Free World and a final encore of Powderfinger that casts its (anti-) hero as freedom fighter. One minute Neil is talking to us about the brave guy from China, then he's speaking in the first person, playing that hero's character; speaking as his ghost, or the ghost of someone very much like him.

Yes, these are fairly small details, layers that go beyond the surface. But as we know, small details are what make all the difference. We're dealing with a model train aficionado here: where small details, thoughtful touches, are the whole point. The setlist isn't an obstacle to the art form, it's often an integral part of the art form itself. Even the Mona Lisa sits in a frame.



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