Someday, there may be a lot more old-timers bragging about having attended the Neil Young & Crazy Horse tour of 2018 than actually saw it. It was a tale of a tour of two cities — three nights in Fresno followed by two in Bakersfield, offering fans in two of California’s least glamorous major cities an up-close-and-exclusive look at rock and roll’s least glamorous major star.
Was it the proverbial out-of-town tryout, or a coast-shunning, Highway 99-hugging end unto itself? Although not billed as such, was it Young’s idea of a promotional tour for the newly released archival album, “Roxy — Tonight’s the Night Live,” a set recorded in 1973 that lent three songs to Sunday night’s closing show, and which featured Nils Lofgren in a rare stint as Young’s second guitarist and backup pianist, as does this newly reconstituted lineup of Crazy Horse?
The answers to these questions probably feel more pressing to those who weren’t able to make it to the hastily arranged shows than to those on hand to witness the power, the glory and (naturally) the raggedness. Sunday’s finale-for-now at the stately Fox Bakersfield came close to personifying the ideal of what an electric set from Young should be: a mixture of the endless and the economical; classics and deep tracks; mind-bending indulgence and leave-‘em-wanting-more. And for the significant part of the crowd that drove in from around the state or parts beyond to supplement the lucky locals, the show’s greatness proved that sometimes you do get what your tire tread pays for.
Young’s recent tours have been with Lukas Nelson + Promise of the Real as his relative child-prodigy backing band, and in fact, the only two remaining stateside gigs he’s announced for 2018 are with that group (including an appearance at the Arroyo Seco Festival in Pasadena June 23). That’s a kinder and gentler crew than Young’s older band of standbys. But fans didn’t know for sure who’d be in a revived Crazy Horse (or, as they were billed on the marquees, tickets and merch this time, NYCH). Bassist Billy Talbot had suffered a stroke a few years ago, but he’s back and apparently unaffected. Not back since the last tour in 2014 is guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, described in a message from Young as “unable to join us right now.” His replacement, Lofgren, was only ever officially a Crazy Horse member on the ’71 album the group recorded sans Young, though he did play the ’73 Roxy gigs of Young that came out 45 years later, which were Crazy Horse in almost everything but name. (Are you following, marginal fans?)
It remained unknown till this past week just what kind of addition to a regular Neil Young touring band Lofgren would be, and the answer is… a less demonstrative one than you might have guessed from his effusive presence in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band… which, Lofgren has suggested in tweets, may be defunct again. Perhaps he’ll adopt a more outgoing persona in a version of Crazy Horse that has actually rehearsed. (At least, Young claimed in the tour announcement that there’d be no rehearsals for this jaunt; fans can judge for themselves whether that claim meets the going Sarah Huckabee Sanders standard of plausibility). But humility suits Lofgren, of course. He’s a swell utility player, adding piano on “World on a String” and “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” and letting his lower, bluesier soloing occasionally bubble up more from beneath Young’s simultaneous, screaming licks… or going in tandem with Talbot to create an even fuzzier version of the signature fuzztone riff for “Hey Hey, My My.”
At one or more prior stops on the mini-tour, reports had put a grand piano on the opposite side of the stage from Lofgren’s, mysteriously unused. Sunday night, fans finally got to hear what it was there for after one of several mid-set discussions among the band led to Young making a one-time appearance at the instrument’s bench for “Speakin’ Out,” a lightly rollicking “Tonight’s the Night” track that’d never been performed live by any official Crazy Horse lineup before. “You never know,” Young quipped by way of the surprise. That was one of three numbers getting their so-called tour premiere Sunday, the others being the less obscure “Hey Hey,” and, for the sole encore, a “Down by the River” that clocked in at close to 13 minutes.
Young did not play “Like a Hurricane” Sunday night, like he had the previous evening in Bakersfield, but on stage, the conditions were, indeed, like a hurricane. A pirate flag whipped around violently above Ralph Molina’s drum kit for the duration of the hour and 45 minutes, and once he doffed his ballcap, Young’s hair spent much of the set aloft from the wind machine… maybe the one thing he will ever have in common with Beyoncé, besides greatness. It may be a visual affectation — or it may just be much-needed AC — but it works as a kind of set design for a show in which you really can imagine the quartet being the turbine that’s kicking up the gale. Nowhere outside of the gates of metal does a band bring this much thunder, and if Young isn’t the only guy who’s rocking this hard at 72, he’s almost certainly the only one who should be rocking this hard.
There were gentler moments in the set, with Young donning an acoustic guitar for “Too Far Gone” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and breaking into the more gently rowdy side of country-rock for “Scattered.” But there were no all-out sops to sweetness; if you want to hear a number as quiet as “Harvest Moon” somewhere besides “A Quiet Place,” you’ll have to wait for the next show with Promise of the Real, which can accommodate that sort of thing. The Crazy Horse generators only wind down so much.
The finest moments Sunday came just a little more than halfway into the set, with a merely nine-minute “F—in’ Up” that is still going on in some other, more benevolent universe. With Lofgren facing him from inches away, Young was at peak Neil-ness, bending, squawking, whammy barring and generally making it sound like being a f—up is the grandest thing one could aspire to in the hero’s quest. As the number seemed to have ended, he added a minute-long coda to reprise and greatly slow down the opening verse, as if what’d just come before had been too grandiose and he needed to reinforce the f—ed-upness of being f—ed up. This would have reasonably been the climax at any other act’s show, but that’s not how Neil Young rolls, and so he rolled another seven numbers. He was singing about feeling small, but there wasn’t a moment’s doubt: We were hearing from a remaining giant.
As for what the future portends for this Crazy Horse, Young did suggest in a message on his Archives website Sunday that there’ll be more: “The band feels great. We peak and crash regularly, as good unpredictable rock and roll has always done. This is like a breath of fresh air, a raw, unedited experience with music, and we don’t know any other way to be. We hope to see you down the road somewhere, in a great old theater near your town or a cattle field out in the Mid-West.” That sounds like a fine second leg for a reunion that started this modestly: Harvest Moo 2019.