Neil Young and Crazy Horse, October 8 at CSU Convocation Center in Cleveland, OH
By Robert Loss
Let’s throw some words at this show: Paleolithic, ripped denims, craterous, grungey (whatever that meant), North American flatlands, weird.
Is this a weird show? Trans was weird. This is normal, and only seems weird because what’s normal these days is Passion Pit’s lead singer saying that “[i]t’s an amazing opportunity” for the band’s song “Take a Walk” to be featured in a Taco Bell commercial.
That’s one kind of comedy. Another is the kind onstage tonight, which has been updated for the times: an Einstein-ish roadie in a white lab coat strokes a tablet like a cat’s back as he directs the raising of those oversized amp cases. In 1978 their ridiculous height framed a story of ambition—the kid in “Sugar Mountain” who grows up to play “Cortez the Killer”—but tonight they’re stone monoliths where we engage in an ancient ritual. Up they go, revealing the Fender Bassman replicas. Young’s onstage, flanked by the Horse, everyone sings the National Anthem, the power chords of “Love and Only Love” rip open. Frank Sampedro fucks up a chord so badly it’s atonal, Billy Talbot laughs, and these guys are already having a good time burning everything to the ground.
Everyone in the general admission section bounces when Young sings “Look out, Momma,” and we catch onto “there’s a white boat coming up the river.” Happily we’re singing and dancing about this kid making his last stand and freezing up and getting shot somewhere out there in America. Old Black sounds so good. A new song, “Born in Ontario”, lopes along on that kachunk-a-chunk riffing Young mastered when you were a glimmer in your teenage mother’s eye, before she met your Dad, or however that story goes. Young’s story is just okay; it’s not a fantastic song, but it’s endearing. The Horse can fix nearly anything.
“Walk Like a Giant” is monstrous. Paleolithic becomes a useful word here. Speaking of useful, the annoying guy in front of me who keeps snapping pics and video with his smart phone finally does something useful and holds up a decibel reader app of some kind: 107db, which according to an untrustworthy online resource is just a little quieter than sandblasting. You need the volume to get the roiling waves of feedback Young and the Horse ride at the end of the song. These pop bands these days, these twee lil’ punks, they crank up the Distort-O-Matic and emaciate the sound; Young lays it out in glacial sheets, precariously balanced, and it gets wider and deeper. Oh yeah, the song. It’s either a megalomaniac’s dream (“I wanna walk like a giant across the land”), or an elegy (“To think about how close we came,” he sings of the hippie dream) and probably both. Melodically, tonally, it keeps shifting until the guitar can’t stand it anymore. Young’s face distorts, implodes. I haven’t mentioned Ralph Molina, whose drum set seems to be encased in and attached to some sort of metal frame. By the end of “Walk Like a Giant”, he’s pounded out maybe thirty stomps—WHUMP—with the rest of the band before Young conjures archaic moans from his stack, the kind you’d hear in that cave at the beginning of The Road.
So that’s four songs. Young plays “The Needle and the Damage Done” and manages to find the song’s nerve despite the thousands singing along. A few songs later, Young says he wrote what’s to come “earlier this morning” and launches into “Cinnamon Girl”. There came a point in my life when I stopped listening to both of these songs. Could not have them. I’d turn the station, skip the track. Tonight they do sound like they were written a couple hours ago.
In between those two songs, “Twisted Road” and “Ramada Inn”. The first is nostalgic, unabashedly sentimental, and the cynic in me wonders if it was written to get the olds whooping for the Grateful Dead shout-outs. It could have been on Harvest Moon or Silver and Gold or Prairie Wind, but it’s here sandwiched between two anxious and mournful songs, one being “Needle” and the other the aforementioned “Ramada Inn”, which is the sucker punch of the evening. From the opening chords of “Walk Like a Giant”, we know what we’re getting; “Ramada Inn” wanders in from off-stage, slips in some alternately beautiful and mundane lyrics, stumbles on the chorus’ lyrics, and unleashes Old Black. In the recording floating around with the new video, the song trucks along; tonight, Young seems almost hesitant to sing the lines, as if they’ll disappear once he does, which they do.
“Cinnamon Girl”—which also features Frank Sampedro kicking Young in the ass and the two eventually sandwiching Billy Talbot; these guys are really having a ball, and we get to watch, which is like so many other shows and so many bands except that there’s a real cost to what Young and the Horse are doing, and they’ve got to put in some effort and they actually have some history behind them, which I constantly think about, about all of the shit these guys have been through—so “Cinnamon Girl” gives way to an incredible “Fuckin’ Up”. Fuzzed-out and blitzed, the song reaches its pinnacle when the guys start giving each other the finger. At this point we’re maybe fifteen hours into the show, I don’t know anymore. After a tune that limps along like everyone ran out of energy, Young admits, “I forgot to announce that last song, it’s a new one…not that it matters, it sounds like all the others.” Or something to that effect. Unfortunately this is true of what turns out to be “Psychedelic Pill”, the title track of the new record. Whatever. No one remembers it after “Hey, Hey, My, My” ignites. Cue encores: “Mr. Soul” and a winking “Roll Another Number (For the Road)”.
I can take or leave Infantree, who put in a solid set, and Los Lobos probably deserves a review all its own, but really, let’s talk more about this guitar of Young’s, by which I mean the sound he gets from his guitars that ranges tonight from the brittle and squealing to the lake effect howling I remember from winters in Cleveland. It’s size, you understand, and a certain kind of assertion, and the best of it seems inspired by Crazy Horse, who tonight sound as tight as they can be, which is not terribly tight, but telepathic nonetheless.
I get angry when I think of this show, angry because I’ve been spending so much time not being at this show and I’ll have to go on living that way, too, listening to Passion Pit and hungry for Taco Bell.
Love and Only Love
Born in Ontario
Walk Like a Giant
The Needle and the Damage Done
Hey Hey, My My
Roll Another Number