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Neil Young & Crazy Horse with Patti Smith in Brooklyn
Photo by Bud Fulginiti
Neil Young & Crazy Horse with Patti Smith
There’s a scene in the recent PBS documentary on entertainment mogul David Geffen in which we’re reminded that the then-head of Geffen Records once, in the 1980s, sued Neil Young for making music that wasn’t Neil Young enough. Apparently someone forgot to give the entrepreneur the memo that he had signed one of the most famously uncompromising, ever-unpredictable artists in rock, and that if Neil Young wanted to make a rockabilly record, or one on which he distorted his voice through a synthesizer, then that’s what Neil Young was gonna do.
The artist and that label soon parted ways, and Young has continued to follow his muse since, record labels be damned. This year, that muse led him to reconvene his standby go-to band Crazy Horse for the first time in eight years, and to release two new albums with them in a four-month period, the bafflingly uneven Americana, on which Young and the Horse remake old folk classics (“Oh Susannah,” “Wayfarin’ Stranger”) and a few other stray oldies in their own image, and Psychedelic Pill, a sprawling, often relentless double-disc of neo-classic Neilian noise.
It was that holy, glorious racket that Neil Young and Crazy Horse brought to Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Dec. 3, toward the tail end of their 2012 tour. Four of the show’s 13 songs came from Psychedelic Pill, none from Americana, but the material itself was secondary to the presentation. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Young today sounds pretty much how he sounded in 1969, when he and Crazy Horse released their first album together, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. His voice remains youthful and strong, his guitar work, if anything, is more intense, more piercing, than ever. He’s a force of nature, Neil is.
Young has been faulted for sticking with Crazy Horse, and there’s some validity to that argument: Technically, this is not a great band. Rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina don’t always rock so much as plod and lumber; the tempo—neither fast nor slow—rarely varies, and the melodies (and make no mistake, every one of these songs is hummable) are often interchangeable: Before they closed the set proper with “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” one could have been forgiven for thinking its signature riff kept turning up in other songs. But what might be a laughable fault in other bands is Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s greatest strength. In milking this endless drone over the course of two-plus hours, the quartet created a hypnotic state that sucked in everyone in its path. It was easy to get lost in the intricate swirls of Young’s rambling, linear solos, which on more than one occasion went on for several minutes before he stepped to the mic to sing.
On the back-to-back openers of “Love and Only Love” (from 1990’s Ragged Glory ) and “Powderfinger” (from 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, possibly Crazy Horse’s greatest achievement), Young swayed to and fro, hunched, bobbed and dug in, peeling out squalls of squealing lead guitar while the band kept pace behind him, never suggesting new directions, simply doing their job of providing a granite foundation. The new material was of a piece with the classics: “Ramada Inn,” from Psychedelic Pill, did not feel like a song written 43 years after “Cinnamon Girl,” which followed it.
Yet there is undeniably maturity in Young’s recent writing—perhaps not an acknowledgement of mortality, just a nod to time gone by (this is after all, the guy who wrote “Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were” in his twenties). “Born in Ontario” and the new acoustic “Twisted Road” are first-person accounts, the former self-explanatory, the latter paying tribute to the first time Young heard Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” watched Roy Orbison and listened to the Grateful Dead on the radio. Not so much nostalgic as declarations of love and honor, the two songs serve as companion pieces to Young’s recently published autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, whether they’re intended to or not.
Two other acoustic tunes, “The Needle and the Damage Done” and an unrecorded new one, “Singer Without a Song” (the latter featuring Young on piano), and a raging take on Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” were among the highlights.
But the centerpiece of the evening was indisputably “Walk Like a Giant,” the fourth song played. Both here and on the new album, it goes on for more than 15 minutes. But at Barclays the song mutated into a multi-minute barrage of eardrum-crushing feedback mimicking the sound of an elephant in pain. The assault found the musicians huddled, torturing their amps and causing some of the more timid audience members to head for the doors (maybe they thought they’d be getting After the Gold Rush ? ). It was radical music considering the setting, a full-sized arena only recently opened. Hell, it would have been radical music even in a small downtown club frequented by hipsters. But when it was over, the burst of applause was no less enthusiastic than that following the more well-known songs. David Geffen wouldn’t have understood.
Opening for Young was the band Everest, who played to a largely empty arena, and Patti Smith, who retains the same pure rock and roll spirit she brought to the New York scene in the early ’70s. Opening with one of her staples, “Dancing Barefoot,” and working through tunes from her new album Banga and even a Neil Young cover, “It’s a Dream,” Smith and her group (which still includes guitarist Lenny Kaye, who was there at the start), connected with the still-arriving crowd when she launched into her biggest hit, “Because the Night,” co-written with Bruce Springsteen, and a frenetic “Land”/“Gloria” from her debut album, Horses.
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