Let’s speak in generalities for a moment. The following ingredients tend not to add up to a great concert experience:
A quartet of Medicare-eligible old men on stage. An utterly predictable rhythm section. A stage set dating back to 1978. Songs that routinely wind on aimlessly past the ten-minute mark. Seven minutes of feedback to conclude one of them. A crowd chant-along to the phrase “Just… a… fuck up.”
Fortunately, this was a Neil Young and Crazy Horse show, in which the whole somehow adds up to much more than just the sum of its parts. Young hadn’t toured with his band of garage-rock stalwarts in almost a decade, although judging by his recently published memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, he’s spent plenty of time thinking about them. Where critics have occasionally dismissed them as barely competent, he writes that the muse visits him most frequently when he’s with “The Horse,” enabling him to go places he can’t go with other musicians.
And go quite a bit longer. The four sexagenarians played two-and-a-half hours at George Mason University’s Patriot Center in Fairfax Virginia, after Patti Smith warmed the crowd up with an all-too-quick 45 minutes. Of course, the Horse’s 150 minutes were the product of a mere 14 songs, in keeping with the band’s penchant for slow burning excursions that stretch nearly every song to the ten-minute mark and beyond — a churning, chugging relentlessness that gives a Young a chance to solo over and over again. Like the opener, “Love and Only Love,” which went about four minutes before Young uttered one sung syllable, or two tracks from the newly released Psychedelic Pill, “Ramada Inn” and “Walk Like a Giant.” Both went past 15 minutes, the latter ending in seemingly endless squalls and thunderclaps of feedback. In fact, the cacophony created by Young’s ancient Les Paul and his even more ancient Fender amp sounded so much like thunder, he used it to transition into a recording of the rain at Woodstock, which then led to a solo acoustic take on “The Needle and the Damage Done”–a reprise of his intro to the song on the now-legendary Rust Never Sleeps tour.
That wasn’t the only similarity to Rust. Dominating the stage were the cartoonishly large mockups of a microphone and four Fender amps that he debuted on that 1978 tour. And while the road crew then wore Jawa-like costumes (Star Wars had just been released), this time around they were decked out in lab coats and mad-scientist hairdos. And they helped get the night off to a quirky start, joining the band onstage for a show-opening sing-along of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Young has a soft spot for such theatrics in recent years, whether it’s a painter working live on canvasses behind the band during his Chrome Dreams II tour or an entire cast of actors pantomiming the plot to his rock opera Greendale in 2003. On this tour, during the show’s quieter, acoustic intermezzo, Young took to the piano for an unreleased number called “Singer Without a Song,” during which an unnamed, uncredited woman strode onstage with a guitar case and looked wistfully out into the audience as if she were, you know, looking for her song.
Then it was right back into the punishing, lo-fi fuzz rock, as Young held back many of the crowd favorites for the second half — “Cinnamon Girl” (for which Young, addressing the audience, engaged the “Crazy Horse Time Machine”), “Cortez the Killer,” “Fuckin’ Up,” the Buffalo Springfield Chestnut “Mr. Soul” and the show-closing “My My, Hey Hey.”
Even an iconoclast like Young needs to check the obligatory encore box. But here it was a relatively obscure track “Roll Another Number (for the Road)” off of Tonight’s the Night. “Think I’ll roll another number for the road,” he sang. “I feel able to get under any load.” Hopefully those words are an indicator that, even having just turned 67, he’ll be back around again.