Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s concert at Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall on February 4th was only their seventh show since guitarist Nils Lofgren rejoined the band after a five-decade absence, but something about it felt different to everybody on the stage. “It was a really special night,” says Lofgren. “Afterwards Neil said to me, ‘Out of these seven shows, I really feel like we’ve turned a corner and become something different as a band. It felt like there was this floating aspect to it where we were just all in tune.'”
Young played a handful of solo acoustic gigs the previous month where he sprinkled new songs like the eco-conscious “Green Is Blue” and the nostalgic “Olden Days” into the set list, but he didn’t quite know what to do with them. “I’ve written some really interesting songs, I think, for me,” he told Rolling Stone that month. “I don’t know where I’m going. I’m just going. Then when I arrive I’m sure I’ll identify it, but I don’t know where that is right now.”
That magic Winnipeg night with Crazy Horse gave Young the clarity he needed: He wanted to record an album with Crazy Horse. “He said to me, ‘I was inspired that night and I’m starting to write [songs] for Crazy Horse,'” says Lofgren. “One thing led to another and he kept writing these songs.”
Over the next few weeks, homemade demos began appearing in Lofgren’s email inbox. “They’d come in one or two at a time,” he says. “Each time he’d be like, ‘Now we have five songs!’ and then ‘Now we have eight!’ When we got up to 11, he said, ‘Looks like we’ve got an album here. Can we all get together and spend a couple weeks recording?'”
Lofgren was eager to help in any way he could, but the timing wasn’t ideal. It was early April and he was weeks away from releasing his new solo LP, Blue With Lou, and he had American tour dates on the books that would keep him busy from the beginning of May through June. “Neil said to me, ‘I know this isn’t the best timing, but we’ve got 11 demos now and we’re excited about it,'” Lofgren says. “‘I’d sure love to start the process before your band comes into town and your thing starts up. Would you consider coming to Telluride?'”
Knowing he had a hard out on April 29th when his drummer Andy Newmark was flying in from England to begin tour rehearsals, Lofgren agreed to venture out to Telluride, Colorado — where Young now lives with his wife, actress Daryl Hannah — for two weeks of recording. “My wife Amy and I had just lost our 15-year-old dog Rain,” says Lofgren. “We were literally going into our two-week grieving session that we’re still not quite over. But [the album sessions] were a nice distraction for us.”
Telluride has an elevation of 8,750 feet and it often takes time to adjust to life at that altitude, so the Lofgrens pulled into town a few days early, on April 12th, and made sure their hotel room was stocked with oxygen tanks. Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot and his wife Karin drove in from their home in remote Zeona, South Dakota, but they got stranded in a blizzard midway there, giving Lofgren another day to adjust to the elevation and roam around the beautiful town. Ski season ended earlier that month and nearly all of the tourists had vanished. “It felt like a ghost town,” Lofgren says. “But we did visit with a bunch of stray dogs that came around to visit us.”
The Talbots made it into town on the evening of April 16th and the entire band celebrated with a dinner at Young’s house. Everyone was excited to start since these four musicians (Young, Talbot, Lofgren, and drummer Ralph Molina) hadn’t recorded together since the Tonight’s the Night sessions 46 years earlier. “There’s still a comfort level with us like old friends you have from high school,” Lofgren says. “We just picked up right where we left off.”
Talk that evening turned to the demos they were about to flesh out into finished songs. Lofgren commented that one track, “Eternity,” had a clickety-clackety beat that made him want to tap dance. It’s a hobby he picked up 10 years ago when he had both hips replaced and basketball, his lifelong passion, was no longer a viable option.
When work began the next day at Studio in the Clouds right outside of Telluride, Young told the production team they were going to start with “Eternity” and it was going to feature Lofgren tap-dancing. “The look on the engineer’s face was pretty priceless,” says Lofgren. “They all got thrown by that. I like to joke it took me 50 years to get a tap-dancing credit on a Neil Young record, but it was worth it the wait.”
“Eternity” is one of many somber, reflective songs on the album. The signature Crazy Horse jams and fuzzed-out guitars aren’t completely absent from the disc, but they are relatively muted compared to every previous album the group has created. “Everything Crazy Horse does doesn’t have to be two-guitar grunge,” says Lofgren. “Some of these songs are mellow and have a different feel.”
That said, the group did find way to add a little Crazy Horse punch to some of the tracks. That process began with “Olden Days,” an almost painfully sad song about days gone by that Young had introduced in concert earlier that year. The original plan was for Lofgren to play acoustic guitar and accordion on it, but before the session he saw Young pacing around the studio near the electric guitars. “Right before we were going to start recording it he said, ‘Why don’t we try the heavier electrics and see what it feels like?'” Lofgren says. “Right away, the song took on a more muscular, Crazy Horse vibe and it wasn’t forced. That set the tempo for the rest of what we did.” (A similar thing happened when Lofgren and Young added electric guitar parts to “Green Is Blue” and “Rainbow of Colors,” bringing significant heft to the original renditions of the songs.)
When Young originally sent the band the songs via e-mail, he told them to learn the chord changes, but not to figure out any specific parts. “He wanted us to discover the songs together,” says Lofgren. “He also didn’t want us to use headphones. The goal was always to see each other and hear each other. That wasn’t always easy.”
It was a process that lead to some mistakes, not that Young minded. “If something was too raggedy on my part he’d let me fix it later,” says Lofgren. “Other times we’d listen to it together and go, ‘No, it’s part of what happened, we’re not going to fix it.’ Unless it was something that drew your attention away from the song, we’d keep the rough edges in. That is part of the experience and that’s what Neil is trying to show everyone. And that’s what Crazy Horse is at its best. It’s an experience and it’s raw.”
Capturing that raw experience on tape was enormously complicated. To make it happen, Young and his team brought a vintage Universal Audio 610 console dating all the way back to the 1972 Harvest sessions and hooked it up to the digital equipment in the room. “There were two entirely different worlds [of technology] 70 years apart rolling and recording at once,” says Lofgren. “Interfacing the analog with the digital equipment was quite a feat.”
This blend led to many technical problems and some long delays. “It required some patience,” says Lofgren. “We’d be playing along and then all of a sudden the PA would just start screaming feedback. Of course, that’s going to frustrate you, and Neil in particular.”
Cameras were all over the studio, capturing each and every technical meltdown and the tantrums that followed. “I just always assumed [the cameras] were a friend of Neil and Daryl getting a little home video,” says Lofgren. “After a while I just forgot about them being there and got onto the deep focus of making a record with old friends.”
They wrapped up the sessions on April 27th and celebrated with a listening party the next day at Young’s house. “He was like, ‘Guys, this is a great start,'” says Lofgren. “‘I feel great about it. Maybe later in August when I’m back from my European dates with Promise of the Real, we’ll reconvene and keep recording.'” It didn’t take long for Young to change his mind. “He started saying to me, I don’t know, man, we might be done,'” says Lofgren. “There was a vibe and an immediacy and a real surprising nature to the whole thing. I think even Neil was surprised and he decided the album was done.”
The next surprise came when he told Lofgren that he was taking the video footage from the sessions and turning it into a movie about the making of the record. The film, Mountaintop, played in theaters across America on the evening of October 22nd. We spoke to Lofgren that morning and he had yet to see it, though he planned on going that evening to a public screening. “This is classic Neil,” says Lofgren. “I’m a little nervous and excited to see it.”
The album was originally called Pink Moon, but many fans pointed out to Young via his Archives website that Nick Drake used that title back in 1972. A few months back, he changed the title simply to Colorado. It comes out on October 25th and the group was planning to support it with an arena tour right around this time, but Young’s longtime manager Elliot Roberts suddenly died on June 21st and everything changed.
“Neil was pretty sure we were going to tour this month,” says Lofgren. “But Elliot was the heart and soul of his organization. It was an incalculable loss that none of us expected. Neil said to me, ‘I gotta go honor these shows in Europe, but then I can’t hit the road again. I have to adjust to a world without Elliot.'”
There are no formal plans at the moment, but Lofgren is hopeful the tour will take place next year. The only possible problem is that Bruce Springsteen has said on a number of recent occasions that he plans on touring with the E Street Band next year. It’s a situation that could put Lofgren in a rather difficult position of having to pick between his two bandleaders, but he says he’s not worried about it.
“In a fantasy world, if they’d let me write the schedule for the year, you’d see me playing with both bands a lot,” he says. “That is just a fantasy world that won’t happen. There’s no point in worrying about it. You can’t even buy a ticket to either band playing anywhere yet. Also, I’ve got more serious issues at home. Two of my remaining dogs have been having health problems. I’m worried about that. But look, it’s a great idea for both bands to play. I would love to see both bands have a run I could participate in.”
He continues: “Look, Neil Young playing with Crazy Horse has always been a great idea. Bruce Springsteen playing with the E Street Band has always been a great idea. Until you can buy a ticket, it’s just an idea. There’s no plans. Nobody has booked me a hotel or plane flight. I can’t go buy a ticket. My job right now is taking care of my health, mentally and physically, so if, God willing, either band goes out and plays next year, I’ll be able to participate.”