Even by Neil Young's fearless standards, his show at Fresno, California's Warnors Theater was a bold move. Not only did it mark his first performance with Crazy Horse in four years, but he claims they didn't rehearse prior to the gig even though this is a new lineup of the band with guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro sitting out for the first time since he joined the group in 1975. In his place is the E Street Band's Nils Lofgren, essentially making this a reunion of the 1973 Tonight's the Night band (who billed themselves as the Santa Monica Flyers) minus the late Ben Keith. Oh, yeah, and he decided to broadcast the whole thing live on his website so the whole world could see the group plug in together for the first time since the Nixon administration.
The show – followed by gigs at the same venue Wednesday and Thursday, before the band heads down south to Bakersfield this weekend – received very limited promotion, with the tickets being offered first to members of the Neil Young Archives website. Ticketing websites and the marquee above the theater billed the group as "NYCH," with the name "Neil Young" appearing nowhere in sight. The result was that only the truest of the true faithful were crammed into the historic theater when the lights dimmed and the group took the stage.
First up was "Big Time" from the group's unfairly overlooked 1996 LP Broken Arrow. It was apparent right from the the get-go that bassist Billy Talbot has absolutely no lingering symptoms from his stroke in 2014 that took him off the road before a European tour. He was grinning from ear to ear and playing just like he did in 1996 and even 1976. Also apparent was the intense focus on the face of Nils Lofgren. He's accustomed to weeks and weeks of rehearsal prior to E Street Band tours, but it was clear he was into the challenge of doing a show on the fly.
Lofgren was the obvious choice to replace Sampedro because of his long history playing alongside Neil Young and his brief stint in Crazy Horse when they cut their own LP in 1971. But he's also a virtuoso with a wildly different style than Sampedro, who has a rawer sound and plays straight from the gut. In the E Street Band, Lofgren is known for his soaring guitar solos where he sometimes commanders the spotlight and spins around like a human dreidel. Theatrics like that would never fly at a Crazy Horse show, and Lofgren played with remarkable restraint, doing did his best to mirror Young's chill groove and complement the songs in whatever way he could. It was a remarkable performance considering the very difficult circumstances.
After the relatively obscure "Big Time," Young dipped back to 1990's Ragged Glory with "Country Home" and then all the way to 1976's Zuma with "Don't Cry No Tears." At times he seemed a little distracted and he repeatedly signaled to crew members to make adjustments to the mix and the lights. The Horse were also uncharacteristically mellow. Poncho was always the most animated member and Young fed off his energy and boundless enthusiasm. Without him they briefly sounded like a different, gentler band, one a little less joyful. But then they launched into "Winterlong" and once Young locked voices with Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina on the chorus they sounded like the Crazy Horse of old.
Next, Lofgren walked over to the piano for the Tonight's the Night gem "World on a String" and the Neil fanatics pressed up against the stage nearly wept with joy. Who would have ever guessed the surviving members of the Santa Monica Flyers would play something like that ever again? The most obscure tune of the night, "Scattered (Let's Think About Livin')" from Broken Arrow followed, proving that Lofgren really did his homework in the short run leading up to the show. The energy level in the theater then kicked into a whole new gear with a wild, frenetic "Fuckin' Up," though it was hard to not miss the playful kicks to Young's ass that Poncho used to deliver during that one.
Young strapped on an acoustic guitar for a mini set that included "Too Far Gone" and "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" before sending the place into hysterics with an explosive "Cinnamon Girl" and a slow, haunting "Cortez the Killer." The evening wrapped up with "Walk On," "Like a Hurricane" (with Lofgren taking Sampedro's standard place behind the string synth), "Mansion on the Hill" and a return to the Santa Monica Flyers days with "Roll Another Number (for the Road)."
Not that anybody cared, but the lack of rehearsal was apparent a few times throughout the night. Talbot seemed to miss a few changes and forgot to come in on background vocals so many times that Young once literally walked over to his mic and began singing them for him. But such moments are part of the beauty of Crazy Horse. The world is full of musicians that can play "Cinnamon Girl" with absolute precision. There's nobody, however, that can play it like Crazy Horse, even when they screw up. That's why Young returns to them time and time again, even though it would be a far better for his financial situation if he were to play instead with CSNY or merely break out his his greatest hits with anonymous pros.
As always, the future of Neil Young and Crazy Horse is unclear. This week-long run of California theater shows might pave the way for a world tour in 2019. The band also might never play again. Poncho could also come back and these gigs will just be a weird detour. (His absence has yet to be explained.) It's doubtful that even Young has any idea where this is going. But if opening night was any indication, five decades after they first played with him, Crazy Horse are ready to follow him anywhere he wants to go.
"Don't Cry No Tears"
"World on a String"
"Scattered (Let's Think About Livin')"
"Too Far Gone"
"Only Love Can Break Your Heart"
"Cortez the Killer"
"Like a Hurricane"
"Mansion on the Hill"
"Roll Another Number (for the Road)"