Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Ottawa 2012

Young and Crazy: The alchemy of defiance

Neil Young and Crazy Horse in concert

"[I]ts almost painful to watch these crackers stompin around stage like uncoordinated bricklayers!"
     — YouTube commentator Leonakita

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

     — Dylan Thomas

Neil Young and Crazy Horse in Ottawa, 2012. (L-R) Frank Sampedro, Billy Talbot, Neil Young, Ralph Molina on the drums. Image adapted from Nutopia.

I swore off stadium and arena shows when I walked out on the Rolling Stones in 1989, because old-music-by-rote+fancy-stage-show seemed better-suited to a casino crowd taking a break from the gaming tables than to an audience for music. But the chance to see not only Neil Young and Crazy Horse, but Patti Smith as well, forced me to realize some oaths are meant to be forsworn.

Not that I was expecting that much when I ponied up a hundred and twenty bucks I couldn't afford. I'd have been satisfied with a harder-edged, Grateful Dead-style jam-fest. But what I got was so much more.

What I got was an immersive, tactile theatrical experience. Not just sound and light, but even temperature and air pressure were brought to bear on the matter at hand: telling stories while (as somebody or other once put it) playing fucking loud.

The wrinkles and jowls, the thinning hair and spreading bellies, made plain the physical ravages of time, but the music was a master-class in slow-cooking rhythmic noise, all pounding drums and basic chords and howling feedback. Neil Young and Crazy Horse are living embodiments of Dylan Thomas' famous poem, even if they do stomp the stage like bricklayers.

Not entirely coincidentally, I recently read Young's memoir Waging Heavy Peace (review coming soonish — click here to be informed!), which reveals a man who is deadly serious about his art even as he is largely indifferent to how it is received.

The concert featured few of his hits and four songs from his new album Psychedelic Pill along with an un-released fifth, "Singer Without a Song." The latter featured a young woman wandering the stage while carrying a guitar case. The instrument made new the hoary trope of Woman as Symbol, giving her a story and so re-making the cliche into a Subject, an individual (thanks, Neil!).

But there was no "Harvest Moon", no "Helpless", no "Rocking In the Free World", though he referenced all three in the very funny introduction to "Cinnamon Girl".

Though the songs he did play were sometimes angry and often melancholic, the overall mood was celebratory. And always, no matter how much the musicians were playing for and to each other, a keen eye was focused on the audience in the distance.

The importance (and the rarity!) of theatre, and Young's awareness of the size of the venue, was underscored by the visual blandness of the opening acts.

The Sadies played a brief but energetic set, a straight-ahead fusion of rock and bluegrass. My companion and I were impressed by the music, but — except for the quality of the sound — we could have been watching a concert on television, for all that we were in the same building as the band.

The aforementioned "Godmother of Punk" had more stage presence. In the face of an indifferent crowd, Patti Smith danced and sang like a desperate priestess of the revolution, but she made no allowance for the space in which she performed, made no use of the potential medium; I imagine her show would be more or less the same at a crowded bar as it was on the floor of a hockey rink.

Then came the main event. Then came the Horse. For two hours and more, instead of a concert, Neil Young and Crazy Horse provided a multi-sensory experience.

As it does in Rust Never Sleeps), the show opened with the Beatles' "A Day In the Life" playing over the speakers. Techs in white lab-coats swarmed the stage, making adjustments to twin sets of huge prop speakers whose configuration resembled nothing so much as two locomotives, set to pull in opposite directions. High above, monitors flanked the stage, displaying what looked to me like the black-and-white Indian-head test signal that once graced CBC Television after hours. "A Day in the Life" marched on — "Woke up, got out of bed/dragged a comb across my head ..." — until its climactic final chord sounded and a single word flashed on.


The tensions between science and alchemy, modern and ancient, intellect and intuition, present and past, were themes visited again and again, as an amalgam of words and music, light and even air pressure and humidity were yoked together in service of stories. Stories of pirate ships and conquistadors, of road trips and love affairs; from Cortez (the killer)'s invasion of the Americas through America's invasions of Asia, to Neil Young's personal present through his past and back again.

Nevermind alchemy. Complexity could as easily have been the evening's watch-word. As much as the show was heavy with themes of age and loss and might-have-beens, it was leavened with humour throughout. From tricks of light (Neil's silhouette: a young Elvis one moment, a decadent and degenerate Keith Richards the next) in (I think it was) the new song, "Walk Like a Giant", to a frankly pornographic jam near the end of "Fucking Up".

In the latter, guitarist Frank Sampedro played a horny teenage boy to Neil's hesitant teenage girl (yes, he really does have a high-pitched voice!). Like the best comedians, Young played it straight, channelling the reluctant girl, his strangely high-pitched voice credibly moaning "I know it's wrong" to "it feels so good" and back again, even as (in case anyone missed the joke) the over-size microphone looming over centre stage morphed into a phallus, rising, falling and rising again to climax.

I laughed out loud, even as I marvelled at the playing.


(Thanks to

01. Love And Only Love
02. Powderfinger
03. Born In Ontario
04. Walk Like A Giant
05. The Needle And The Damage Done
06. Twisted Road
07. Singer Without A Song
08. Ramada Inn
09. Cinnamon Girl
10. F*!#in’ Up
11. Cortez The Killer
12. Mr. Soul
13. Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)

14. Roll Another Number

And o! that playing! Yes, the band was loose, the music thick with extended improvisations, but if you paid attention, it was clear those jams were built around a rigorous superstructure. Neil Young called himself an "old hippie" in his memoir, but there was no mistaking this show for the sloppy exuberance of a Grateful Dead concert. Self-indulgent if you must, there was nothing slap-dash about the performance.

It don't really matter where I am
It's what I do, it's what I can
This old world has been good to me
So I try to give back and I try to be free

— from the new song, "Ontario"

Playing to an uptight crowd in a half-full arena, this was a joyous celebration of music and of a musician's — and a band's — long careers, but it was no nostalgia show; the new songs saw to that. And the musicians played like under-aged kids on stage for the first time, twisting and pounding their instruments as if afraid they might be chased off at any time.

About those new songs. It's early days, but repeated listens have me convinced that "Walk Like a Giant", "Twisted Road", "Ramada Inn" and maybe even "Born in Ontario" are as good as any Neil's written.

Now closer to 70 than to 60, Neil Young is an artist still passionately in thrall to his muse, corkscrewing about a consistent creative centre maybe, but never playing it safe.

The North American tour is done, but if you're Australia or New Zealand in March, you should be able to catch a show near you. If you can, then for god's sake buy yourself a ticket! You can thank me later.

I'll leave you with a video, thanks to Brishi69, for getting some of it down for posterity.


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