Over the last week, Neil Young has been re-launching the most fruitful musical collaboration of his lifetime – the band Crazy Horse – with a series of shows in small theaters in the California heartland. The news arrived just two weeks ago, with a post on the Neil Young Archives web site announcing that Crazy Horse wanted to “get our feet wet” with a few gigs, at which they would be re-joined by guitarist Nils Lofgren. For longtime watchers, this was big news. Lofgren had been a key contributor to Young’s breakthrough album “After The Gold Rush” played alongside Danny Whitten on Crazy Horse’s eponymous album from 1970, and re-entered Neil’s orbit in 1973, following Whitten’s untimely death, for the recording of the rock-noir classic “Tonight’s The Night.” At Bakersfield’s Fox Theater on Saturday night, the Horse of 2018 sounded ancient, yet fully alive, living proof of the vitality of (North) American rock and roll.
It’s not unheard of for the Horse to pop up unexpectedly in California when Neil’s got something up his sleeve. These shows, in Fresno and Bakersfield at venues holding somewhere in the vicinity of 1,500, took place with enough advance notice that a fair number of fans were able to get the jump on tickets, and my pre-show visit to the Tiki-Ko Bar around the corner revealed that lots of the locals were also going to be there in force, jazzed to have this happening in their town. It was a sold-out house of people who really wanted to be there, and I don’t expect that anyone left disappointed.
This is not the most raging, wild-abandon version of Crazy Horse in history. There have been other tours in the past that were more about the raw, screaming intensity, although the most vicious parts of “Fuckin’ Up” and “Like A Hurricane” are still as drool-inducing as ever. But the extended chaos and extreme noise is not their biggest strength anymore. They’re reaching back for something more elemental, that funky Dylan-meets-Rolling-Stones hybrid that Young fantasized about when he first found these guys. Maybe it was the recent release of the live tapes from the Tonight’s The Night tour that got him thinking about putting this lineup together again, to try and probe that liquid groove thing they had during their time together.
Having Lofgren back on board in place of Frank “Poncho” Sampedro provides a whole different counterpoint to Young’s lead guitar. He can take over on piano for several numbers, and adds a polished harmony voice back into the mix. They can get nasty when they want to, but Weld-era Crazy Horse could never have done “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” or “Too Far Gone” as laid-back and lovely as they were done here. Selfishly, I kind of hope Bruce Springsteen keeps doing solo appearances on Broadway for a while and leaves Nils free to ignore his regular gig in the E Street Band, and play with the Horse for the near future. He brings considerable musical order to the chaos, without driving the beast off track.
That said, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Neil are still in the band, so the possibility of chaos is never far away. They still teeter on the brink of in-or-out of tune, still have somebody blow through the chord change from time to time, still seem to be starting songs they barely discussed let alone rehearsed prior to show time. They gave up on what felt to me like a perfectly serviceable version of “Walk On” with a swipe of Neil’s arm. “That one wasn’t feeling that good… why work? Ladies and gentlemen – we’re just doing what we want up here!” He’s kind of prickly these days; in Pomona in 2016, I watched him abandon a version of “Old Man” before even getting to the first verse because he didn’t like the sound of his guitar. I kind of appreciate uncompromising ‘tude, when many professional entertainers would just roll their eyes at the crappy sounding guitar and get it over with. But at the same time, come on – I wanted to hear that song!
But I don’t want to complain too much about a single misfire, within such a strong set list, so powerfully performed. “When You Dance (I Can Really Love)” got a rare airing, one of the high points of the night. They did a couple numbers from the album “Tonight’s The Night,”with the original electric guitar and 4/5 of the original personnel present (RIP Ben Keith). There was a soaring “Winterlong”, a joyous “Country Home”, and a pounding rendition of “The Loner” that two different attendees told me was the best they’d ever heard. Two songs from 1996’s “Broken Arrow” made it back into the set list, “Scattered (Let’s Think About Livin’)” and the set-opening “Big Time”.
All the big Crazy Horse epics – “Cinnamon Girl”, “Cortez The Killer” and “Like A Hurricane” – were appropriately epic, with massively inventive guitar solos that still retained the flavor of their original versions. “Love To Burn” from the album “Ragged Glory”, a personal favorite, made for an intense first encore, before our night was capped off with the finally-legal sentiments of “Roll Another Number.”
Here’s hoping that the events of the past week mark the beginning of something that has life beyond these gigs, because on the eve of their fiftieth birthday, the future is suddenly looking bright for Crazy Horse.