by Chris Familton
The previous night at the Bimbagden Estate winery in the Hunter Valley was a superb 2 hour show from Neil Young & Crazy Horse with only one thing missing – his full stage setup. Of course musically it didn’t matter, everything still sounded as widescreen and epic as usual but it certainly felt comforting to arrive at the Sydney Entertainment Centre to the sight of those giant road cases and mad scientists busying themselves onstage. It’s all part of the grandeur and eccentricity of Crazy Horse and particularly Young’s quirky sense of humour.
The start of the show, with the giant mic stand being lowered to the stage before an Australian flag appeared as the backdrop and the national anthem played with Young and Crazy Horse standing hands on heart was a tad cringeworthy. Neil has never shied away from some cheesy elements in his performances; Greendale comes to mind, but it mattered little in the context of the show and was no doubt included with good intentions. From the opening clarion call of regular set opener Love and Only Love and into Powderfinger it was clear that the band were firing on all cylinders. Those long wandering solos and riffs of Love and Only Love separated by comparatively brief verses really summed up the essence of Crazy Horse and they way they balance beauty and brutality in simple yet challenging musical contexts.
Everyone who had half a brain should have been aware that this was the tour in support of Psychedelic Pill, the expansive album from last year that captured the spirit of Crazy Horse after 96’s wayward Broken Arrow. The highlights of the new album were again the highlights of the live show with Walk Like A Giant and its contrasting sections of whistling, beautiful vocal harmonies and crackling, electrical storm soloing lumbering across nearly 20 minutes of sonic landscape, culminating in a wasteland of decaying sound, rumbling low frequencies and mechanistic snare shots from Ralph Molina that sounded truly astounding. Discarded newspaper tumbled across the stage, Young reached into his amp to physically wring more caustic distortion and feedback from the speaker while flashes of the band at various stages of their lifetime appeared on the screen as if we were experiencing cracks in the time/space continuum.
After the intensity of Walk Like A Giant the sweet lilting refrains of the new song Hole In The Sky sounded positively angelic, belying Young’s stinging critique of the environmental practices and the damage we are doing to the Earth. It is surely one of the sweetest sounding Crazy Horse songs since Change Your Mind. That change in musical mood led to the solo acoustic rendition of Heart of Gold to massive cheers of recognition for Young’s only #1 song. It still sounds perfect, now with even added meaning to the line “and I’m getting old”. Twisted Road worked well acoustically with its catchy chorus and it should have concluded the mellow section of the set as Singer Without A Song was the only song of the show that failed to generate any kind of spark as Young played upright piano and a ‘lost’ girl wandered aimlessly around the stage with a guitar case.
In the live setting Ramada Inn has emerged as a real tour de force of the band’s new songs. With Young’s best set of lyrics in years it detailed a relationship poisoned and threatened by alcohol yet maintained by love and devotion. The closeups of Young’s face on the screen as he delivered the words “she does what she can” portrayed real emotion and you wonder if there was more to his recent decision to give up alcohol and pot or if he merely used that change as seed for a great lyrical idea. With each verse/chorus he stepped back from the mic and leaned into a new solo, each one more intense than the last. With Billy Talbot and Poncho Sampedro pulled in close he delivered some truly visceral moments on his guitar Old Black, hitting his pedalboard to dial in apocalyptic crunch and distortion and coruscating notes that tore through the air and throughout the Centre.
The final third of the show was given over to some of the seminal moments of the Crazy Horse discography from a primitive, stomping Cinnamon Girl, to a blasting Fuckin’ Up that descended into an ad-libbed rap comedy act but was still hilarious. Buffalo Springfield’s Mr Soul was a highlight with its borrowed Satisfaction riff before they wound up the main set with one of the best versions of My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) that I’ve seen. It was ferocious and anthemic and was the perfect culmination of all that preceded it.
At the previous night’s show we were left on a mellow note with Roll Another Number as the encore. In direct contrast Young pulled a couple of real surprises out of the bag with the rarely played Prisoners of Rock ‘n’ Roll from their Life LP and Opera Star from Re-ac-tor. Both are songs that reaffirm the band’s commitment to the essence of rock ‘n’ roll and the pride they, or primarily Young, take in their autonomy and habit of doing only as they want to do. We may never see Neil Young perform in Australia again with Crazy Horse. Let’s hope that isn’t the case but if it is this was the band at the top of their game, displaying the full range of their sound from epic to intimate, doo-wop vocals to thunderous rock. It was an astonishingly good show, a testament to Young’s pig-headedness and boundless creativity. Long live Crazy Horse.