It’s All One Song: Neil Young & Crazy Horse in Fresno, May 2, 2018

It had been so long since any of us had been to the Warnors Theatre that none of us could remember the last time they’d been to the Warnors Theatre.

R.E.M.? That was 1985, so that can’t be right. There had to have been something else, right?

But of course, that’s how time works: sometimes things disappear from your life and you don’t even realize that they’ve left. So there were shows at the Star Palace or the Wilson and of course the Blue and the Oly and that’s where life was for me until I left in 1994, at which time I could still probably remember when the last time I saw a show at the Warnors.

However, one thing is sure: I missed Neil Young the last time he played at the Warnors. That was during the Ten Men Working tour with The Bluenotes, and looking at the set list, it was probably a damn good show.

Also, it was during that weird period where Neil’s muse was sending him down all sorts of roads that were always interesting but never completely compelling, and even though I was jazzed at the success of “This Note’s For You,” I wasn’t particularly interested in Neil Young does the blues during the awful summer and autumn of 1988.

But it wasn’t with Crazy Horse. I have no doubt I would have gone if it was with Crazy Horse. Cos while I love Neil Young’s music beyond reason and bounds, it’s the music he makes with Crazy Horse that most fully resonates in my soul. Pure, simple, elemental, while at the same time full of endless possibilities. Always the same, and yet completely unpredictable.

Or as a heckler yelled on 1996’s Year of The Horse: “They all sound the same!” Neil’s response, just before they rip into “When You Dance I Can Really Love,” says volumes about his conception of his music: “It’s all one song!”

That said, I’d only ever seen Neil Young & Crazy Horse twice: the first time was at the Cow Palace in San Francisco with Jay and Manny and Byron. It was the week after The Miss Alans had recorded All Hail Discordia! and Manny’s tape of that show was the soundtrack for an amazing road trip that culminated in amazing sets by not just Crazy Horse but also Sonic Youth, whose combo of noise and confrontation was a perfect fit as an opener, except to the hippies who just didn’t get them.

The second time was the 1994 Bridge School show, where the fact that they were all acoustic didn’t seem to keep an epic version of “Change Your Mind” from blowing everybody’s. That was also the show where Tom Petty decided that he didn’t want Stan Lynch as his drummer anymore. I had just recently moved to the Bay Area, and during the heady dot-com days, I missed Neil & Crazy Horse more than once, as there always seemed to be last-second shows or secret shows for which I just couldn’t manipulate my schedule or life in order to attend.

Which I thought was going to be the case when the Fresno shows were announced a couple of weeks ago, spreading like wildfire on my social media feeds. There was just no way I could figure out how to go to a mid-week show 3 hours away. I’m not going to lie: this depressed the fuck outta me. That Neil Young would choose the Warnors Theatre in Fresno for what might be the first of the last-ever Crazy Horse shows — as signified by OG Nils Lofgren standing in for upstart Frank Sampedro — seemed too weird and cool to miss.

Especially since Neil had just told Rolling Stone in March that he had no plans whatsoever to tour (and had at least three Crazy Horse related records he planned to release, including a brand-new one called Alchemy.

So the timing of all of this raised some questions. What was up with Poncho? Were they really going in unrehearsed? Were the setlists going to be different each night? And, most importantly, was Neil Young staying in Fresno all three nights? That somehow seemed inconceivable, but with a pair of dates in Bakersfield this weekend, it also seemed impractical for him to go back to his ranch in between shows, not to mention expensive. I had to find out what the hell was going on.

So I moved heaven and earth, and Tim still had an extra ticket, ignoring me when I told him there was just no way I could go, until just a few days ago, when I suddenly could. And so there we were last night, along with 2000 other Neil fans who were restless enough for Neil to come onstage that I worried that we might see the first-ever riot by people up past their bedtimes.

The whole time while we were driving up, listening to one classic Neil jam after another, Tim kept saying that he felt like he was being punked, because it came together so fast, and because long-time fans know that nothing happens with Neil Young until it actually happens — how many of those aforementioned albums w/ Crazy Horse will actually get released? — whereas I kept wondering about the setlist.

Obviously, we’d seen the setlist from the previous night — Rolling Stone had a review up of the May 1 show seemingly before the last encore had finished — and while it was amazing, they could do a show with none of those songs and it would be equally amazing. I joked that maybe it was going to be all new songs about how much he loved Donald Trump.

As it turned out, though, it was pretty much the same setlist as the night before: kicking off with “Big Time” from 1996’s Broken Arrow, traveling back in time with soaring “Country Home,” and the poppy “Don’t Cry No Tears” before landing smack in Tonight’s The Night territory with the outtake “Winterlong” and the deceptively chipper “World on a String,” with Nils playing the piano, as he did way back in 1973 when Crazy Horse recorded the bulk of Tonight’s The Night.

They’re not credited as such, of course, they’re credited as The Santa Monica Flyers, but the vast majority of that album features Ralph Molina on the drums, Billy Talbot on the bass, Nils on guitar & piano with the addition of Ben Keith on pedal steel. In other words, Crazy Horse.

Every single one of these songs, and in fact every song he played, had some kind of direct Crazy Horse connection (Even “Too Far Gone,” which didn’t show up until the Horse-less Freedom, but with Poncho playing mandolin.)

So while there may not have been any rehearsal — and if there was raggedyness last night, I missed it, or didn’t care, cos that’s never the point — there certainly was a theme. And that theme was Crazy Horse. Which meant, of course, that of the 15 albums Neil’s released since 1996’s Broken Arrow — three of them with Crazy Horse — exactly zero were represented last night.

But it also meant that great uptempo songs ranging from “Rocking In The Free World” to “I’m The Ocean,” not to mention mellower fare like “After The Gold Rush” or “Unknown Legend,” were nowhere to be found, as the focus was squarely on albums like Zuma, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (which got four songs), and Ragged Glory, from whence the first show-stopper of the night came from.

“Fucking Up” is the quintessential Neil Young and Crazy Horse song. Which it isn’t to say that it’s the best, but it’s really NYCH boiled down into song form. And why — for some people, your mileage may vary — they have been such a solid band for so long. It’s centered around a big dumb riff, and the lyrics could have come from something a band member making a mistake in rehearsal said. (Or onstage, for that matter.) The verses are almost impressionistic, but the chorus is direct:

Why do I keep fuckin’ up?!?!

Pure, simple, elemental, while at the same time full of endless possibilities. Always the same, and yet completely unpredictable.

And with 2000 people singing it — some of them no doubt living the song even as it was letting them escape the realities of their own fuck ups — “Fucking Up” is now as much of a crowd-pleaser as “Cinnamon Girl,” which got truncated after only a single “Ma send me money” instead of the two they did on Tuesday night.

Of course, the difference between “Fucking Up” and “Cinnamon Girl” is the guitar solo: you can sing the “Cinnamon Girl” guitar solo in your sleep, and my favorite part about it last night was how nobody knows exactly when that just-audible-enough “wooo” comes in and yet everybody does it at various points during the solo.

On “Fuckin’ Up,” though, the guitar solo was unpredictable and untamable, as Neil, Nils and Billy stood in a circle in front of Ralph (how left out must he have felt all these years?) and just throw down, Neil ripping wildly fucked-up notes from his trusty black Les Paul as if somehow trying forgive himself for all of his fuck-ups, knowing that he never will, and he’s just going to sing the song yet again.

After a brief acoustic respite of “Too Far Gone” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (from After The Gold Rush, but three guesses who played on it), followed by “Cinnamon Girl,” it was “Cortez The Killer” time.

All these years later, the studio version of “Cortez The Killer” seems like almost a sketch, a demo, and indeed of the long guitar workouts on Zuma, I prefer “Danger Bird,” but live, it is almost otherworldly, imbued with a spooky power that is on a par with one of the greatest opening lines of any song ever:

“He came dancing across the water / With his galleons and his guns”

Dancing.

“Cortez The Killer” takes its time. You can’t just wipe out an entire civilization in a flash. Or at least you couldn’t then. With Ralph Molina & Billy Talbot playing at sailing ship speed, Neil’s guitar slowly throwing out long arcing jags of noise that cohere like separate skyrockets that turn into a glorious display. There. Is. So. Much. Restraint.

It’s so unlikely that a slow dirge about genocide is such a crowd-pleaser, but my guess is that “Cortez The Killer” is one of two songs that had he not played, the hardcores in the audience would have been the most disappointed. The other, of course, is “Like a Hurricane.” (OK, “Down By The River.” “Cowgirl in the Sand.” “Powderfinger.” Etc.)

The point is that as I was following how last night’s show was echoing the setlist from the previous night, I got a bit freaked out when they went into “Mansion on the Hill.” Not because I don’t love “Mansion on The Hill,” (though if you’re gonna do three from Ragged Glory, I’d love it if one of those was “Over and Over”) but rather because I suddenly wondered if they were skipping “Like a Hurricane.”

Not at all, as soon after “Mansion on the Hill” finished the winged Stringman synth floated down from the stage, looked around for Frank Sampedro, but decided instead to attach itself to Nils Lofgren, and after some fanfare, Neil launched into the iconic opening guitar riff, as the crowd went crazy.

Last night, in addition to the signature “reep reep reep reep” Neil did on post-verse turnaround, “Like A Hurricane” was that unique blend of maybe Neil’s most beautiful melody — which is saying something — combined with shimmering spiraling waves of guitar that floated iridescently around the room, as Molina and Talbot almost even got uptempo for a moment.

In the end, with the whole band doing a fanfare to close the song in the same way they opened it, Neil sing snatches of the lyrics that somehow reignites “Like a Hurricane” for one last chorus, only here’s the thing: Neil doesn’t want to end the chorus, getting stuck on “Somewhere safer where the feeling stays” singing it over and over and over and over until finally murmuring “I wanna love you but I get so blown awayyyy”

40 years later, and Neil Young and Crazy Horse are still figuring out ways to make “Like a Hurricane” even more transcendent.

Pure, simple, elemental, while at the same time full of endless possibilities. Always the same, and yet completely unpredictable.

Neil Young is 72 now, still living the lyrics of “I’m The Ocean:” “People my age / they don’t do the things I do” and I’m 55, not even trying to keep up anymore, but ever-conscious of the fact that experiences like this are few and far between, but will only disappear from my life only if I let them. Only if I let them.

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