Crazy Horse guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro has been playing with Neil Young for 40 years, but he's worried their current world tour might be the last one. "I just think once it stops it's going to be kind of hard to get it rolling again," he says on the phone from his home in Hawaii. "My gut tells me this is really the last tour. I hate saying their ages, but I'm 64 and I'm the baby of the band. I love playing and we're playing as good as we ever did, but at any time something could go down with any one of us."
Young and Crazy Horse have been touring heavily since last August, playing gigs that sometimes stretch beyond two-and-a-half hours. "Our shows are physical," says Poncho. "It takes a lot of energy to play that much. It just seems at some point something is going to break. I already had an operation on my thumb. Neil's wrist bugs him, and he has to tape it when he plays. You can't fool time. You can't count on this happening again in five years."
Whatever happens in the future, Neil Young and Crazy Horse have a long European tour in front of them. They just wrapped up a leg in Australia and New Zealand that featured some welcome additions to the setlist, including a ton of rare songs from Zuma and Re-ac-tor. Rolling Stone spoke with Poncho about the tour, his early days with Young and his long and tumultuous history as a key member of many of his backing bands.
When you guys toured last in America last year it was the same basic setlist night after night. What caused you to extend the show and break out so many rare songs when the tour his Australia?
It's funny you say the setlist is the same almost every night. When I came home from the tour, my girl picked me up and she had a new car. I said, "Let's listen to your sound system." She had Psychedelic Pill and we put on "Walk Like a Giant." I listened to it and said to her, "We don't play that song anything like that anymore."
So, they were still brand new songs. They were evolving and changing, and it was pretty interesting. Then all of a sudden, one day at rehearsal Neil said we should change up some of the older songs. We played one or two of them one night, and then all of a sudden he just played five of them in a row without stopping. He just ended one, started the other…We all looked at him like, "What the fuck are you playing man?"
We had no idea he was going to do that. We did rehearse "Prisoners of Rock & Roll," but we didn't really rehearse "Love To Burn" at all. He played it in the dressing room on a piano, and then called for it that night as the second song. That was, like, insane, especially since Neil made more mistakes on it than anybody else.
I loved seeing "Barstool Blues" in the setlist.
Oh, that was cool. We rehearsed that once at sound check. We didn't rehearse "Sedan Delivery" at all. We played it at rehearsals before the U.S. tour last summer and it was always kinda suckin'. When we played it live it was like we always played it. It was so much fun. We had a great time. "Danger Bird" was really cool. The only time we did that was sound check and Lake Tahoe.
Do you know what causes Neil to decide something like, "OK, tonight is the night for 'Barstool Blues?'"
I have no idea, but what I really felt is that on this tour we're not able to ride buses because the distances between places was too far apart. We had to fly, and that meant a lot of days off, and pretty easy going days. I think everybody was feeling too relaxed, so I thought Neil just pulled those songs out and said, "Let's shake it up. Let's see what we can do."
He also extended some of the shows by a full hour.
Tell me about it! [Laughs] What happened to "we're only going to play two hours?" [Laughs]
What was it like to play "Like a Hurricane" in a torrential downpour?
Oh, that was so crazy. It was raining off and on, kind of sprinkling all day there. Then we we started playing "Hurricane" and a torrential downpour came. I mean, literally the organ stopped working it got so wet. I had to play guitar on that song for the first time in history.
All that gear took a hit. It almost looked like hail was falling. I was drenched, and I couldn't move because I was attached to the organ. Those guys got to take a step back and everyone was quickly covering all the amps. The monitor console got totally soaked. A lot of things stopped working. It was crazy, but it's not the first time that happened during that song. It's amazing.
I love that you're doing all those random songs off Re-ac-tor.
Yeah, we have a lot of songs. We had to eliminate a lot of the old songs to make way for new ones. Let me ask you a question. What do you think the people would rather hear: the new ones or just a show of the old stuff?
Unfortunately, I think most fans just want the old stuff. People react stronger to material they know, and it reminds them of their youth.
Right. Well, it's funny. In the middle of that five-song barrage [of obscure older songs] that Neil laid on us we took a little break and I heard someone in the audience yell out, "Play something we know!" [Laughs]
That's great. It would be so easy for you guys to play "Down By The River," "Rockin' in the Free World," "Cowgirl in the Sand" and the other hits every night, but to leave them out in favor of obscure 1980s stuff like "Opera Star" is pretty awesome.
Yeah. "Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze" came off pretty good. I think we played it better than ever. We've opened up every show of this tour with "Love and Only Love," but one night in Australia he started with "Powderfinger" and then went right into "Love to Burn." We'd never even played that with our guitars on once. Neil blew the first chorus. He played it wrong. I was going, "Shit, what are we going to do?" Then it played it wrong again! He didn't go back to the verse. He played the first chorus three times. He goes, "I was just trying to get it right."
You guys have a ton of shows coming up this summer in Europe. Do you think the setlist is going to keep changing around?
Well, I hope so. It's nice to pull songs out of a hat and just play them. It keeps the band on it's toes. In the beginning, it was a little shocking. They came just so fast. He did "Prisoners of Rock & Roll" and then started to do "Opera Star" right after it, and Ralph [Molina] was still playing a shuffle because we hadn't really stopped. It took us a minute to adjust. It was insane. But imagine if you were in the audience and you just saw this weird ending, which was a barrage of music, and another song just grew out of it. It was probably pretty cool.
That's the thing. When you come to see us, you really don't know what's going to happen. There's no pattern. We just kinda learned the changes and then the solos start happening. It could go anywhere.
Are you prepared to break out any song in the catalog? What if he calls for something really rare like "T-Bone?"
[Laughs] It's funny you say that.
Every night before the show we do a vocal warm up. We just sing scales together. It's really more about being united as a group before we go out there than anything else. One night Neil was on the keyboard and I said to him, "We could always do 'Mashed Potatoes.' He was like, "Oh yeah, we could do that."
I want to talk to you about the distant past now. Were you a fan of Crazy Horse before you joined the band? Did you buy Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere when it came out?
Oh yeah. I even used the album cover for rolling big fat hash joints. I used to listen to them and say, "Gee, I wish I could play with them." [Laughs]
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