TSB Bank Arena
Tuesday, March 19
In his memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young talked about feeling lost. He had given up marijuana – a habitual smoker from 19. He was going to have to learn how to write songs and play on stage without pot. And so he headed back to Crazy Horse. He headed home. The Horse is a spiritual grounding for Neil Young; for the electric/eclectic Neil Young. And so Americana begat Psychedelic Pill and Psychedelic Pill bore this current tour.
The show starts with a bunch of mad-scientist roadies fluffing about with oversized amp-covers on the stage. It’s a hark back to Rust Never Sleeps. Then we get A Day In The Life, The Beatles song – not Neil’s cover from one of his last tours. And there’s video-screen footage, then the NZ National Anthem. And the band stands on stage, with the roadies. And the anthem plays out. I like this because Neil and crew are showing that they’re here to serve us; soldiers ready for battle. They’re an army and they’re in it together and they’ll protect and serve the songs.
First song is Love And Only Love, a perfect set-opener for Neil Young & Crazy Horse, you can feel them feeling their way into the song, having a poke around before Powerfinger, sounding urgent, passionate; beautifully bittersweet.
There’s plenty from Psychedelic Pill and that’s okay because it’s less a new Crazy Horse album and more a case of new career summary, alright Born In Ontario is a bit of a nothing-song frankly, but harmless. Walk Like A Giant is huge. So huge. So good. It continues the exploration that seemed almost tentative with Love And Only Love.
Hole In The Sky is new – super-new. And it’s super-good too, a different feel for Neil & The Horse.
Then we’ve arrived in the middle of the road, time for the solo acoustic Heart Of Gold; it gets the big response. And it is good. We didn’t need it. And that’s probably why Neil plays it. You can imagine he has had some perverse pleasure in playing this as part of a Crazy Horse set, giving the ignorant ones just what they want, but only just enough of a taste to leave them potentially bitter there’s not more of the Harvest-era seat-filler fodder.
Neil chews through Twisted Road too; it sounds better solo acoustic – live – than the Psychedelic Pill version. And then it’s to the piano for the as-yet-unreleased Singer Without A Song (who else but Young simply dumps new songs and old rarities in unannounced?) It’s a good tune, reminiscent of moments from, variously, Tonight’s The Night, Freedom and Sleeps With Angels but it comes with a cringe-tastic mime wherein a young lady appears on stage with guitar case – the singer in search of her song. She searches the stage while Neil plays piano. It’s stupid. I kinda loved it. (Presumably we can blame Bernard Shakey for that one).
Back to Psychedelic Pill for Ramada Inn – gorgeous, rolling, generous, the heart of the show for me in many ways; the emotional centre. But it’s also a song from the new album that’s 20 minutes long – so for others it was a chance to go to the dunny, check out the merch stand and return with some beers. Fair enough I guess.
The real salt and grit is when Neil is strangling that guitar, arguing for it to spill the beans, to tell its truth/to yell his truth. He’s like the standover man of the electric guitar; he wrestles and wrangles, he tilts and whirls, he angles back with a cartoon walk one minute then next thing it appears he’s been using his guitar to catch a fish all the while. Hendrix may well have stood at the edge of the mountain and chopped it down with the edge of his hand. But you get the feeling, now, that he was instructed to do that so that Neil Young could tunnel out from the rubble.
Every guitar solo is different, every guitar solo is sacred. Neil Young’s guitar solos when he’s riding with the horse are not toilet-break material, unless you couldn’t make it the whole way to the show in one go because your knuckles were skinned from all the walking. Neil Young’s guitar solos when he’s riding with the horse are a surprise every time – to him and to us. He plays them as if he’s hearing them for the first time. That’s the real (genuine) treat. His severe case of guitar-face so genuine; he so thoroughly means this shit. He’ll fight for it too. His guitar carries the scars to show for it. He’s so wrapped up in this and his body language suggests the power runs through the lead and on through him before it gets to the guitar’s pickup.
So Ramada Inn is just one of many magic moments. But it’s where you once again hear the guitar solo as narrative glue. Ramada Inn starts to feel like an Ian McEwan book because of Neil’s solo. It creates and uses space.
Cinnamon Girl goes back to the earliest days of Crazy Horse, pre-Poncho, but it’s always good with that turnaround inside the riff. And then it’s straight to Like A Hurricane, 20 minutes of dancing on the light from star to star; Poncho playing a floating organ, Young working about the stage to find new crevices to tear the old notes from.
A devilishly good punked-up Sedan Delivery is blistering in its potency and the set-closer, Hey Hey My My is ruggedly good and stroppy. Beginning with a lurch, deliberate, a slow stalk, so purposeful. And if the rhythm section approaches the task as if the song’s pallbearers it’s Young’s vengeful soloing that allows it to burst from the coffin; to strut as he frets for another hour up on the stage.
The encore sees Opera Star (from Re*ac*tor). Again, who but Neil Young could do this? Take a song from one of the most critically reviled albums in his catalogue and serve it up as encore? Well, I’m sure only Young can do that and make it count; again it’s full of punkish nerves, it has a spite to it that makes it seem sharper now than then. Stripped of the baggage of a plodding, messy album it’s just another explosive Neil Young gem. That, and it’s also a reminder that Neil Young, 67, newly freed from his marijuana dependency, a memoirist spiritually reborn, is back in business as a guitar-slayer.
Then to Fuckin’ Up, we open and close the show with Ragged Glory tunes, I like that – it’s the stuff that got me hooked on Neil and Crazy Horse and it’s the blueprint for all that is good with the band and about the band I reckon. It’s been updated with Psychedelic Pill but if Ragged Glory isn’t this combo’s best album it’s the best one to think of as their best; the best example – in one single play; the rawest, truest representation of the raw, true thing the band became after its false starts.
Ragged Glory is also what saved Neil Young from being lost – the 1980s were strange for him and he was strange to them. He tunnelled out for Freedom but Ragged Glory sealed the deal. From there he’s used Crazy Horse as a crutch and as his way forward; his chance to explore.
Fuckin’ Up rolls out for 20 minutes tonight – huge promise and a bit of a goof-off part too with call and response silliness and Poncho playing it up. But by this point and long before it Neil had us saddled up to ride with him and the Horse. We’d just been enjoying the scenery for the last two hours.
He’s so sure what he’s doing is right. He’s so unafraid for it to be deemed wrong. He’s so good. He’s heading toward another peak with this latest version of where his muse and music is at. And Crazy Horse? Good lord this band just works so well for him/with him. Ralph and Billy (and Poncho, but less so) are proof you don’t need to be pretty, or have great voices, to be the perfect backing singers. And Ralph Molina would be an awful drummer if he played with anyone else – and though he still is very much the training wheels-guy behind Neil it’s actually Molina’s playing that anchors Crazy Horse in the best kind of way; they can never get too far ahead of themselves or lag too far to the side off course because of Ralph. He’s simply not good enough to ever make them sound terrible. But he’s just bad enough to make them sound great.
Make sense? Probably not. But nor did most of the conceptual ideas behind this show, nor the fact that Heart of Gold was played – with glee and all. Neil Young & Crazy Horse doesn’t make sense. And that’s why they make complete sense.
They didn’t even play Cortez. And they didn’t even need to.
For nearly three hours we were taken places, Neil worked his ass off, the soldiers served us. We knew that from the opening anthem. And when he strolled off stage with a nonchalant wave at the end of the set it was as if he’d just done an honest day’s ploughing. And in fact that’s exactly what he had just done.