For Crazy Horse guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, playing with Neil Young earlier this month after an eight year break was pretty much the best feeling in the world. "Imagine the first time you had sex," he says. "It can't always be like the first time, but I thought it was pretty spectacular. Just wild. Everything's been beautiful."
The band's setlist is a careful mix of classics like "Powderfinger" and "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" with brand new tracks such as "Twisted Road" and the 20-minute long, feedback-drenched epic "Walk Like a Giant." "Putting together the setlist was painstaking," says Poncho. "We just kept going through the songs we had, trying to include Americana songs and our favorites. Neil literally changed the setlist three times a day and everyone was getting pissed off. It was really frustrating because we were trying to zoom in on songs."
The band ultimately sat down and voted. "We'd go, 'Who thinks this can go?'" says Poncho. "'Who thinks that can go? How bad do you want this? How bad do you want that?" The vote resulted in a new batch of songs they began zeroing in on. "Luckily after that I was in Hawaii the same time as Neil," says Poncho. "We sat down every day playing acoustic guitars with the new setlist. We got it down to where it was in the end."
Despite the fact that the band is touring behind the folk covers disc Americana, they decided to drop all of that album's tunes except for "Jesus' Chariot." "They just didn't fit in," says Poncho. "Somehow they really sound good when we play them together, but when we play them in a set they just didn't fit in. I told Neil that I thought it was a lot of fun playing them and they're great songs, but our soul and our hearts aren't in them."
The setlist was tinkered with right up until opening night in Albuquerque on August 3rd. "That night Neil called out, 'Do you guys like Buffalo Springfield?' and he started 'Mr. Soul,' says Poncho. "Nobody knew that was going to happen. We didn't have a clue. It had gotten dumped off the setlist. We were supposed to play 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,' which sounded really great in rehearsal. But I thought we wound up playing 'Mr. Soul' better than ever."
During the first five shows the band stuck to a pretty rigid setlist of around 15 songs, but when they return to the road for a much longer run in early October it may broaden out. "The first time I went home the setlist was 29 songs," says Poncho. "When I was rehearsing it took me three hours and 20 minutes. I'm glad we cut it down. We have a good list of options now that includes 'Rockin' in the Free World' and 'Like a Hurricane.'"
Many fans noticed a piano onstage every night that was never played. Poncho has an explanation. "We played 'A Lotta Love' at the beginning," he says. "But that could come back any night."
Creating the setlist ultimately involved a certain degree of compromise. "I voted never play 'Cinnamon Girl' again," says Poncho with a laugh. "But I'm not the least bit bummed in the least about how it all worked out. I'm really happy we've got new songs to play, too. It makes the show so much more fun and exciting.
Even though Neil Young and Crazy Horse released Americana in June, a new album of original songs might appear in stores around the time the tour resumes in October. According to Poncho, the title will be called Psychedelic Pill, which is the name of one of the many new songs featured on this tour. "That song began in the studio when Neil sat down at the piano and began playing chords," says Poncho. "Ralph [Molina] was on drums and he started this beat on the snare and wouldn't stop for nearly an hour. We stood up and played it and realized it was a great song. We just haven't performed it that great yet, but we're getting more comfortable every night."
The band is particularly excited with how "Walk Like a Giant" has come together. "Neil came into the studio and he had that song," says Poncho. "We played it one time and the next thing we know we're doing overdubs. Then he played it for us. The playback just blew our minds. We had no idea we'd done something that big. I imagine it's about Earth being destroyed by this giant, and we're screening the planet for survivors and shit. I have all these images going through my head. It's really crazy."