To me, the world has never seen a better musician and performer than Neil Young . No one can ever steer me away from>"/>
To me, the world has never seen a better musician and performer than Neil Young. No one can ever steer me away from my opinion that 1) at 61, he is more vital than any of his contemporaries, 2) no other artist of his stature has the ability to affect people so personally, 3) he is the greatest guitar player that has lived despite his limitations, and 4) he keeps getting better because he keeps getting older and weirder. Oh yeah, and 5) Crazy Horse is the greatest rock band ever, the Stones are the close second (sorry, I prefer my rock to sound like it’s being played by Neanderthals with soul).
Last night marked my sixth Neil Young show and it ranks as the second best on my list, only because my first time seeing him in ’96 changed my life. Here, he ambled out onto the cluttered stage in his sloped-shouldered old stoner way, waved to the audience and took a seat on a creaky chair to play a solo “From Hank to Hendrix”. Though the WAMU Theatre has its many drawbacks as a venue (it lacks character, mainly), I do have to give them props for sound; Neil’s voice and guitar were pure crystal. I could hear every buzz of his low E string, every swipe of his forefinger over the frets. His voice is richer with age, able to hit lower, throatier notes, which he demonstrated with a gorgeous “Ambulance Blues”, one of his finer surrealist-folk numbers from Side 2 of 1974’s On the Beach. On record, this number is extremely intimate, the kind of song tailor-made for smoking a joint by yourself at 3 a.m. And though the crowd, including myself, could hardly contain its excitement at seeing the man live, he somehow transfixed and hypnotized us with his quiet loopy verses of “Mother Goose on the skids” and friends who “tell you your just pissing in the wind.” He followed it with “Sad Movies (Day and Night We Walk These Aisles)”, the first of three unreleased gems he’d play during the solo set. He stood up from the chair and walked around, doing his whole “what-song-do-I-play-next” bit, an act he’s been doing at solo shows for years now. So he went to his grand piano, newly painted in psychedelic swirls, and launched into a Transylvania version of “A Man Needs A Maid”, replete with heavy pipe organ exhales. The rest of the set was split between crowd pleasers and rarities. At one point, someone shouted for “Like A Hurricane”, to which he joked: “Oh yeah, that’s a great idea”, before hinting that he might play it later. “Harvest” and “Heart of Gold” were played alongside “No One Seems to Know” and “Love/Art Blues”, the latter of which has received few outings since the 1974 CSNY tour. But the most spirited number was a guitjo version of “Mellow My Mind”, the woozy-boozy classic from Tonight’s the Night. The song was always a plunky country-folk song, but the banjo twang lent the song a well-worn quality that was proof of how well songs and their singers can adapt to growing old if they don’t resist.
During a brief intermission, while Neil’s crew cleared the stage of acoustic guitars, I spoke with two fellow Neil fanatics in the lobby. One, a boastful older guy in his faded Ragged Glory tour t-shirt. We swapped stories of past Neil shows, but he’d seen more shows than I could compete with. To him, there is no better artist than Neil Young and he’s stuck it out through every one of Neil’s weird records or foul on-stage moods, loving everything equally. If there is a stereotypical Neil Young fanatic, this guy was it; more proof that the folks who really dig Neil are in it for the long haul. A few minutes later I talked with a girl who does interior design for Starbucks’ retail stores. I asked her if she was holding some corporate front row VIP tickets. She said: “Hell no! They cost me a fortune. Why? Was Starbucks giving them away?” Like me, she first got turned on to Neil at 11 years old and has been hooked ever since. For some reason, I’ve found better spirits and greater camaraderie at Neil Young shows than any other live music event. Folks told me the Dead would have an even greater vibe, but by the time I saw them in ’95, it was mostly surly frat boys and faux-hippies eager to rip you off.
The intermission was supposed to last 25-minutes, but I swear it was only 10-15. He launched into an electric version of “The Loner”, before I could make it back into the showroom. He was backed by Ben Keith, Rick Rosas, and Ralph Molina, and wearing a pair of pants that looked as splattered and nasty as the Carhartt’s I used to wear when I painted houses for a living. They romped through “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, but things really picked up on the new material from Chrome Dreams II. They tore through “Dirty Old Man”, and things took an epic turn with “Spirit Road”. This song is a fucking windblown flurry, one I rank as high as “Love and Only Love” and “Over and Over” from Ragged Glory. But if any critic out there had ever questioned Neil’s vitality over the last few years, they would have taken it all back when this thunderous jammer caused much of the crowd to rush the stage, brushing past a helpless security staff. Neil’s epic jams have always induced this urge for fist-pumping intimacy, and the song picked up major steam as the crowd hugged the stage tighter and tighter. I can only imagine that, as a man who has seen the gap between performer and audience grow wider as venues grew bigger and colder, this was a welcome feeling.
They slowed things down with “Oh, Lonesome Me”, “Bad Fog of Loneliness”, “Winterlong”, and “The Believer”, the latter a new pop-soul song I’m not fond of (I would rather have heard “Shining Light” in its place). But, he made up for it with the best riff-fest he’s conjured since 1994’s “Change Your Mind”. The song is basically two-notes, over which Neil fucking mangles, caresses, and chops at his Les Paul. At this point, this Les Paul is 54 years old and his Fender Deluxe amplifier is 46 years old. Though they are no doubt a guitar tech’s nightmare, this combo is one of the most recognizable guitar sounds in rock. It’s thick and heavy on the low end, but when he starts slicing at the pointier notes, the effect is pure raw electricity, like exposed high-tension wires, if you will. He lumbered back n’ forth on this sucker for twenty minutes or so. Drummer Ralph Molina kept his sluggish caveman beat going while Neil swayed around, wisps of gray hair flying. My only complaint is that the rest of Crazy Horse wasn’t there. Though it was obvious that Neil can jam no matter whom he’s with, a song like “No Hidden Path” is prime Horse material. Ben Keith and Rick Rosas are awesome sidemen in their own right. But when Neil lurched their way, they remained stiff and focused, whereas Poncho Sampedro and Billy Talbot would have lunged right in there, feeling that primal thump and egging each other on. But it was still a hell of a jam that Neil could probably have played for another 20 minutes if time wasn’t a factor.
They encored with a crowd-pleasing “Cinnamon Girl” and, in a rare moment, Neil granted that earlier request for “Like A Hurricane”, which sent most through the roof, including a twentysomething girl in knee-high stockings who bounced non-stop like a pogo stick (I later caught her fleeing excitedly from the venue, as if Neil had pumped her so full of adrenaline that she had to jog it off if she expected to sleep at all that night). Neil was obviously enjoying himself as well; mid-riff he motioned for the soundman to turn up his guitar, which basically drowned out the entire band save for Molina. It was killer shit, just having your ears flooded with his massive electric squall, because ultimately, Neil’s best songs convey a sense of true freedom. And that guitar—at its most ragged, booming, and soaring—is the sound of freedom itself.
(As a side note, there should be live shots accompanying this post. If you wanna know why they're not here and I'm using a pic from the mid-90s, contact these folks. I'm still wondering myself.)