Six years ago Neil Young brought his CSN homies through town imploring the country to impeach the president for lying, this week he began the next leg of his tour with Crazy Horse with a straight-faced version of  “The Star Spangled Banner.” A political evolution? You decide. Neil Young always does what he wants and leaves it to others to draw the conclusions.

For the past 45 years Young has been one of our most varied, confounding and prolific musical voices, but his recent multimedia product blitz is astounding. It began in the spring with Americana, a punked-up version of traditional tunes that qualified as one more of his eccentric sojourns. It was followed by a weighty autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, followed by  the DVD release of Journeys, the final chapter in a Jonathan Demme-directed trilogy of value-added concert films and Psychedelic Pill, a sprawling two disc set that represents the rejuvenation of his partnership with Crazy Horse. In parallel, Neil and the Horse have embarked on a worldwide tour (for the next dates go here).

After the national anthem ended and some wiseass yelled “play ball” the Horse followed with anthems of their own, including two new songs that seemed to last forever but still disappointed when they finally came crashing to a close. “Walk Like a Giant” was a slam in the head, ending with five minutes of  plodding noise that convinced you that a giant was about to stomp the building to shreds. Feedback abounded as the giant got nearer.

Listening to this my mind wanders, knowing that many of those in my acquaintance might interpret these sounds as noise. I accept this, an anthem for one person may be anathema to another. And not everyone gets Neil.

Throughout, the musicians were dwarfed by giant fake amps and a 20-foot tall prop microphone. The requisite giant screens were on either side of the stage  while the road crew dressed in lab coats milled around. Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, those Crazy Horseman, provided a steady counterpoint to Young’s improvisation. They are also having a tremendous amount of fun, with Sampedro challenging Young during "F*!#In’ Up" in a mock brawl echoing playground arguments everywhere. “You’re fucked up.” “No, you’re fucked up.” Over and over.

For this, Crazy Horse could be the greatest band in the world. They play these anthems, old and new, night after night. But there is never a hint of boredom or ennui. They love playing “Cinnamon Girl” and “Mr. Soul.” simple songs that have attained anthemic status, as if it were the first time.

Americana, the first manifestation of this year’s journey, at first seems like one of Young’s random little projects. An imagining of what it might sound like if a dedicated garage band decided to tackle some of our best known folk songs it wasn’t really popular among a lot of Young fans. First impressions were that it was another gimmick, a left turn taken until he did something real. So we ignored Americana in favor of waiting for the “real” Crazy Horse album that was supposedly imminent.

Psychedelic Pill is that album, and it fulfills all expectations and has pushed Americana to the background. We ignore it at our own peril. A lot of Young’s left turns that were once dismissed now sound quite fresh. Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’ and This Note’s For You, ridiculed at release, now sound great. Maybe it takes us a while to catch up.

Young wrote Waging Heavy Peace himself and it shows,  I mean that in the nicest way. There must have been an editor involved so its nonlinear structure is intentional. He jumps from one topic to the next and back again, omitting the biographical details and skipping through his various obsessions about trains, electric cars and a quest to improve digital sound.  Young’s father was a professional writer of some note and apparently advised his son to write in the same way he spoke.  

So reading Waging Heavy Peace is most like what you would hear in a lecture hall, should Young take this book on the road. Or you can visualize it in someone’s living room where Young sits by the fire and talks about his life as people around the room have a drink or smoke a bowl. At the end you wouldn't care that he wasn't taking any questions.

Except this one: The book was written about a year ago after Young had quit drinking and getting high after years of indulgence. He states this increased his mental clarity but had been unable to write any songs since jumping on the wagon, wondering whether he’d be able to write when the time came. Psychedelic Pill proves that, he overcame songwriter’s block. But did he stay sober? We’re curious, only because the album’s opening track, “Driftin’ Back,”  is so trippy.

Journeys is for those who haven’t had enough of Young after reading Waging Heavy Peace. It’s meant to be a candid look at Young with mixed results. The backstage footage is often enlightening, and scenes of Young in his natural habitat provide that view. On the other hand, a shot of a solo live “Down By The River” that literally goes up Young’s nose is a little too much information, even for the most dedicated.

An obsessive Neil fan has to have all of this and I succumbed. I saved a bit of money getting the book on Kindle and renting Journeys from iTunes, but I pretty much ate the whole enchilada this time. Young's output is diverse and it's rare to find someone who loves every one of his albums. Let's go a step further: It's rare to find someone who's heard every one his  albums.

But this night, standing in toward the back of the general admission section at Key Arena in Seattle with the monster video screens in equidistant view, something clicks. In the middle of "Ramada Inn," an astounding track from Psychedelic Pill, the auditory thrill reminds me why I bought into all this stuff. It's the music, stupid.  The extraordinary noise that occurs when Neil makes when he brings some of his friends to play in your town. These sounds make everything else superfluous. If not for this music he'd be just another scraggly guy on YouTube singing "Down By the River" to the mirror and the book would be a waste of time.

Young's unpredictability and variety is what makes him most interesting, you never know what to expect. Even so, there is a notion that for all his left turns into country, techno, big band, solo electric and whatever else he may try his work with Crazy Horse represents the peak of a vast musical mountain he has built throughout the years. Assign any superlative you want. For me this represents the Holy Grail of Rock and Roll, representing the most astounding , exhilarating noise I'll hear for some time.

For you, it could be just noise.

Set List: Love and Only Love/Powderfinger/Born in Ontario/Walk Like a Giant/Needle and the Damage Done/Twisted Road/Singer Without A Song/Ramada Inn/Cinnamon Girl/F*!#In’ Up/Mr. Soul/Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)/Tonight’s the Night.

Charlie Bermant has written about music since forever, and has collected the best of his interviews in A Serious Hobby, which is available here.

Views: 1376

Comment by Pete on November 15, 2012 at 12:12am

Saw the Horse at Farm Aid for 5 songs -- very exciting to see them stompin' around again...then had tix in Pgh but my Mom got sick so I gave them to my nephew -- and it was almost better to have given him the full-on Horse experience as a 25 year old -- there's nothing quite like the sensation of seeing this band live -- like old friends whose hospitality isn't forced, it just comes naturally...thanks for the reminder to re-visit some of the old stuff and dig deeper into Americana...Good Things, Pedro in PA

Comment by Alan Wagman on November 15, 2012 at 5:29am

Funny, you seem to feel the way I do about some of the new stuff.  Yes it is Crazy Horse but it just doesn't feel quite THERE.  Saw Neil and the Horse in Central Park a few weeks back and I felt let down.  Like they were having too much fun instead of being angry like they were around the times Rust Never Sleeps and Weld came out.  Psychedelic Pill just doesn't engage me like older Horse albums do.

Comment by Paul Dionne on November 15, 2012 at 10:24am
As a Neil fan, it is painful to me how dumb and inconsequential most of Neil's lyrics are these days. Psychedelic Pill is a new low, except for Ramada Inn; also said, as a fan of T-Bone and Opera Star...
Comment by Kenneth L Sibbett on November 16, 2012 at 4:24am

What makes him the genius he is, is the various different projects and balls he keeps in the air at the same time. I think he's probably written enough songs to put out an album a year until he dies. Maybe,  like Tupac and Elvis,forever. I would pay to see him play the wood saw, I love the guy.

Comment by Roger Osburn on November 16, 2012 at 7:02am

I buy the whole enchilada every time Neil releases something.  I've been extremely disappointed at times ("Broken Arrow", "Are You Passionate?", "Fork in the Road", most of "Americana", etc.) but I gotta say I've hardly taken "Psychedelic Pill" out of the player in my truck.  I LOVE "Driftin' Back", all 27 1/2 minutes of it.  Reminds me of when I was seeing Neil on a fairly regular basis 25+ years ago.  For me, he does some of  his best work with Crazy Horse.  I missed seeing him in Tulsa on this tour but have recordings of just about every show on the tour.  They may have lost a (very) little of their energy but I guarantee you we won't see them settling in Vegas or even worse Branson in a few years.  Considering his age and the life he's led, Neil is nothing short of inspirational!  

Comment by Michael McKenzie on November 16, 2012 at 8:41am

Great article. I believe a lot of people who are complaining about the lyrics are missing the point. It's about guitars, noise, and the whole sonic experience. I dig Americana too. High Flying Bird would fit right in on Zuma. Neil's albums aren’t all masterpieces, but I usually find something I like about each one. I took my 14 year old (aspiring musician) son to the Tulsa show and we had a fantastic time. Ralph Molina even threw him a drum stick after the show (we were right up front). It renewed my belief in the magic of music.

Comment by darren morris on November 16, 2012 at 10:11am

I understand what you are saying but Dylan's lyrics aren't what they used to be either. I'm not what I used to be and neither are you.  Sure he isn't angry and there is certainly a tactile difference.  A lot of us don't listen to music (or feel music) the same way we did when we were younger whether we want to admit it or not. It isn't just the music old's the listener. Look in the mirror.

Comment by sluggo on November 16, 2012 at 10:26am


Youngtown Museum....where the inspiration for Helpless came from..check it out, visit the museum if you are ever in ...north ontario......

Comment by L A Johnson on November 16, 2012 at 2:27pm

All Neil fans should purchase Blue Ray version of the PILL with the 37 minute bonus track 'Horse Back' it is superb and much better than anything on the CD. No lyrics so that's a blessing - it's just a jam with film in the studio and Neil's guitars - after 20 minutes the jam stumbles into Cortez The Killer as Old Black appears - awesome

Comment by Charlie Bermant on November 16, 2012 at 2:38pm

Wow. There's the incentive to get a Blu-Ray player.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.