The official T-shirt of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 2012 American tour has a very simple message on it: “Equal parts past, present and future.” It’s not just an empty slogan. Throughout the course of a blazing two-hour-plus show at Albuquerque’s Hard Rock Pavilion, Neil and the Horse dipped deep into their catalog of classics, but gave almost equal time to material from Young’s next album with Crazy Horse, supposedly due on shelves later this year. The only real misnomer is the word “present.” Only a single song was played from their new folk covers disc, Americana.
Most artists of Young’s caliber wouldn’t dream of challenging an audience with songs they’ve had no previous chance to hear, but Young has always had tremendous faith that his fans will follow him down any path. The last time he launched a tour with Crazy Horse, back in June of 2003, he may have pushed that idea too far by devoting the vast majority of the show to his rock opera Greendale, even though it wouldn’t hit shelves for another two months. The three oldies at the end did little to quiet the many the fans who left that show grumbling that they’d been screwed.
Nobody left this show complaining, however. The group took the stage at 9:00 p.m., patted each other on the back and launched into a jammed-out rendition of 1990’s “Love and Only Love” that lasted 13 minutes. This is the first show the group has done together in over eight years (the longest break in the 43 years they’ve been playing together), but there wasn’t a hint of rust. Young, bassist Billy Talbot, guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro and drummer Ralph Molina were locked in tight, and the song wrapped up with eardrum-bursting waves of feedback and distortion. It’s a controlled chaos that Young and the band thrive upon, and it was beautiful to see him once again embracing this side of his craft. It had been way too long.
Up next was a scorching “Powderfinger” from Rust Never Sleeps; it was beginning to look like the show would be a run through familiar hits, but then the curveballs came. First was a brand new song that seemed to be called “Ontario.” It’s a nostalgic journey through Young’s life with the repeated refrain, “I was born in Ontario.” The older Young gets, the more he seems to be looking to his early days for inspiration.
The title of the next song was unclear – it could be “Walk Like a Giant” – but it begins and ends with Young and Sampedro whistling together into the mic, and it’s one of the most powerful songs Young has written in years. The feedback coda on this one must have lasted a full five minutes, with Molina pounding on his drum kit like an invading warrior. Here’s hoping the rest of the new disc lives up to the promise of this one.
Crazy Horse then left the stage as a roadie handed Young an acoustic guitar for a sing-along of “The Needle and the Damage Done” and a new song about the first time Young heard Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” “Poetry rolling off his tongue like Hank Williams chewing bubblegum,” Young sang. “Asking me, ‘How does it feel?'” The band returned, with Poncho on the keyboard, for the crazily obscure 1981 studio outtake “I Wonder Why.” It felt a little limp. Yet another jammy new song followed, before they got the crowd back into the show with a short-but-sweet “Cinnamon Girl.”
By this point the group was on fire, and they didn’t let up until the end of the show. “Fuckin’ Up” was absolutely insane, and the group seemed to be having a blast as they yelled out, “Just a fuck up!” over and over at the top of their lungs. Young then yelled out “Buffalo Springfield!” before a super-intense “Mr. Soul,” followed by the inevitable “Hey Hey, My My.” Poncho has put on a little weight since the last tour, but by this point he was jumping up and down like a teenager and grinning from ear to ear. Neil looked like a man possessed as he leaned forward, nailed one guitar solo after the next and screamed his famous line, “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”
A piano with a large lamp over it sat ominously on the side of the stage all night, but Neil never went anywhere near it. Instead, he kicked off the encore with “Jesus Chariot (She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain)” before wrapping up with “Roll Another Number.” The 1973 song is about moving on from the past while still looking back on it fondly, and it was the perfect note to end the show.