Neil Young and Crazy Horse took the Petersen Events Center by storm in their concert Tuesday night. Young and Crazy Horse played a tight, twelve song set that left the diverse crowd well-satisfied. The majority of the songs were from Young’s soon to be released album, Psychedelic Pill, which he recorded with Crazy Horse.
Young has always been one of my favorite rockers. While a young lad growing up in Pittsburgh, I heard “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man” and “After the Gold Rush” played in heavy radio rotation. In college, during album swaps with friends, I was introduced to his rich legacy and killer rock riffs. These riffs were apparent as a founding member of “Buffalo Springfield,” when he joined “Crosby, Stills & Nash,” and again as a solo artist. Young can rock your socks off or make you mellow with songs like “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and “Cripple Creek Ferry.”
He is always creating new, relevant music for our times. Hearing this music through the years has made me a devoted Neil Young fan. However, for reasons I don’t readily recall, I have never made it to a Neil Young concert. When I heard that he was coming to town with his original solo band, Crazy Horse, I made it a point to attend. The combination of his nasal, melodic voice, virtuoso guitar skills, truthful lyrics and sense of humor have kept this old soul vibrant in a younger and younger-focused music industry.
The concert crowd, a mix of aging boomers, yupsters and younger folk who appreciate real, non-manufactured music, settled in and waited as white, lab-coated stage hands made final preparations for the first set. The stage decor was modest, featuring a Neil Young and Crazy Horse banner as backdrop. A Pittsburgh Pirate pennant flew from a line behind the drum kit, but New York was also represented by the drummer, who donned a backward-facing New York Yankees ball cap as he played. Muted, earthy, pastel-colored lights lit the stage. Over-sized steamer trunks, circa the early 1900s, flanked the drum kit, obscuring a clear view of the drummer for a certain segment of the seated audience. An over-sized microphone and stand sat at center stage, while two very large, retro TV screens hung from the rafters, transmitting the action on each side of the stage.
The stage hands used ropes to raise the steamer trunks, revealing over-sized, replica Fender amps. Then one of the stage hands removed his wig and a roar arose from the crowd. Underneath was Neil Young! The fans laughed and clapped in approval. A rock invocation was offered by Young and bandmates as they led the crowd in a patriotic song. When it was finished, they strapped on their guitars, fired up the drum kit and the rock concert began.
First up was “Love and Only Love.” We got a good look at Neil Young’s favorite guitar, a customized, classic Gibson “Les Paul” model known as “Old Black.” The next tune, “Powderfinger” was followed by “Born in Ontario” during which Young strapped on another favorite, a Gretsch “White Falcon” guitar. An antique calliope was also in the mix for part of this song.
“Walk Like a Giant” (from the upcoming album) followed with Young switching back to “Old Black,” with some nice whistling parts and a little “doo wop” harmony combined with some beautifully screechy guitar interplay. Video monitors inter-cut the performance on stage, with old flashback footage of Neil Young, like a fuzzy, old TV-station signal fading in and out. At the end of the song, Young and fellow guitarists gathered near one of the replica Fender amps, concluding the tune with heavy down-stroking licks that sounded very dark and full of feedback. This went on for almost five minutes. During this time, and other times during the concert, white smoke would billow from the replica Fender amps whenever Young and his guitar mates would jam nearby. Add an audio-visual simulated thunder and lightning storm–it’s rock ‘n roll.
Young played his iconic “The Needle and the Damage Done”on a Martin acoustic guitar and harmonica rig. The vocals really shined. Second in the acoustic set was “Twisted Road;” then Young returned to an electric groove with “Ramada Inn,” a sensitive song about a couple in love, with kids. He squeezed every last drop of musical juice out of “Old Black” with heavy use of the guitar’s whammy bar.
“A little tune I wrote in bed one day” said Young, as he struck the first several chords of “Cinnamon Girl.” The crowd cheered. “Fuckin’ Up” was next on the roster of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s set list. There was some really inspiring guitar work on this piece; at one point while singing “why do we keep fuckin’ up,” he pointed at the audience. The song ended with Young joking, “We fucked up the ending.” The audience howled with laughter.
Psychedelic Pill, Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s soon-to-be released album, and song of the same name, was introduced on stage by overturning the huge microphone prop and transforming it into an illusion of a giant, multi-colored, encapsulated pill. Young joked that the album’s cover tune sounded like some of his other songs. Things got a little fuzzy and crunchy (guitar wise) for “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” Young elicited an array of guitar effects, working the foot pedals like a church organist, and giving the song an involved, extended ending. “Hey Hey, My My” concluded the set and the band left the stage. As the fans applauded and whistled, the lights remained dimmed. The stage hands rigged up a hanging, somewhat movable keyboard that had at it’s crest a white Native American art eagle with a tie-dyed base.
After a short pause, the band re-took the stage and lauched into their encore song “Like A Hurricane.” The crowd erupted into applause. Young’s guitar playing reached incredible heights, a beautiful screeching, that, for me, approached a religious experience.
Crazy Horse is comprised of Frank “Poncho” Sampedro (guitar), Billy Talbot (bass guitar) and Ralph Molina (drums). Talbot and Molina, the rhythm section, kept a solid foundation for lead guitarists Young and Sampedro to build upon. Sampedro on the other lead guitar was a perfect accompaniment to Young. They played off each other quite nicely. Opening acts “Los Lobos” and “Infantree” did a great job of getting the crowd wound up for Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
This concert was a truly magnificent experience. Why had I waited so long to see Neil Young in concert? I plan to catch him again on tour. One miss, however, was omitting “Oh Susannah (from his current Americana album)” from the evening’s set list. Maybe Young didn’t know that Stephen Foster, composer of the American classic, was born within sight (Lawrenceville) of the Petersen Events Center. It would have been a nice local tie-in.
One of Neil Young’s albums is Rust Never Sleeps and as a legendary rock musician, author (his latest book is “Waging Heavy Peace”), movie producer, screenwriter, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and humanitarian, Neil Young probably doesn’t sleep much either.