Concert Review: Neil Young and Crazy Horse — Together Again

By Scott McLennan

Over the course of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s two-hour show the tension between magnificent creativity and near collapse was palpable.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse during the current tour’s opening night performance in San Diego. Photo: Joey Martinez

Despite his peripatetic approach to his art, Neil Young continually goes back to performing with Crazy Horse, and for good reason. Not only is this a band that defies easy categorization, but it has an impressive knack for finding fresh revelations in songs that have been around for decades.

For the first time since 2012, Neil Young and Crazy Horse returned to Massachusetts on Friday, playing a sold-out show at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield. Young has been back to the area since 2012, but he either played solo shows or had the band Promise of the Real backing him.

The truth is, Young’s music takes on a whole different form when he plays with bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina, a rhythm unit since the early ’60s that Young tapped, along with its guitar player Danny Whitten, to make the pivotal 1969 album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, credited to Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

Young would go on to make records with other players before the next proper Crazy Horse record, 1975’s Zuma. By that point Whitten had died; Nils Lofgren replaced him for a short time. Eventually, guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro joined the fold as Young’s Crazy Horse guitar foil. That lineup was responsible for making the classic albums Rust Never Sleeps, Live Rust, and Ragged Glory.

In recent years, Young himself has avoided extensive touring and Sampedro retired since Crazy Horse last hit the road. Since 2019, Young and Crazy Horse have made four studio albums with a returning Lofgren, who is currently out touring with Bruce Springsteen. That has created an opportunity for Micah Nelson to join up with Crazy Horse. (Nelson first started playing with Young as a member of Promise of the Real.)

Neil Young at Xfinity Center in Mansfield. Photo: Scott McLennan

Drawing on this new configuration of Crazy Horse, Young stayed firmly in the catalog of classics, playing nothing more current than 1996’s “Scattered (Let’s Think About Living)” from Broken Arrow, which was transformed into a tender homage to Young’s longtime producer David Briggs, who died in 1995.

“Tender” isn’t exactly a word that comes to mind when describing Crazy Horse. The band is mostly renowned for its thunderous jams and penchant for having the musicians huddle closely together in front of Molina’s drums and simply thrash, albeit with a certain brutal elegance.

But that emotional dichotomy is what defines Crazy Horse. One moment the band sounds fierce, the next it comes off as vulnerable. One song’s poetic lyrics underscore what a smart and perceptive writer Young is, while another tune’s waves of distorted guitar and pile-driving bass remind you just how savage Crazy Horse can be. (Neil is 78, Billy and Ralph are both 80 — luckily, 33-year old Micah could keep up with them.)

Over the course of the band’s two-hour show the tension between magnificent creativity and near collapse was palpable. Young seemed to be amused by being unpredictable, keeping his bandmates locked-in and alert by tossing in unexpected twists and turns. Molina, who has been playing with Young through seven decades, appeared to be genuinely stumped by Young’s intro to “Love and Only Love,” taking a moment to find a spot to hop into Ragged Glory‘s meditation on the never-ending battle between good and evil.

Young has kept his set lists fluid for this tour, and in Mansfield he broke out “Barstool Blues” for the first time since 2014. The musicians on stage looked as delighted as the audience with this surprising choice. This rambling dreamscape of a rocker is fundamental Crazy Horse; it can slam away emotionally while playing music that leaves wide swaths open to interpretation.

The show kicked off with a performance by Rev. Billy Talon and the Stop Shopping Choir, which served as more of a preamble than an opening set. Rev. Billy and his colorfully decked out choir sermonized and sang about the dire threats to our planet posed by a cadre of corrupt and unscrupulous “poisoners.” The good reverend called for a revolution of love to reclaim the planet and that message — “Love Earth” — is the name Young has given this roadshow.

As he has been doing since he launched the tour last month, Young and Crazy Horse began with the loping ache of “Cortez the Killer,” complete with recently unearthed additional lyrics that describe the despair of the vanquished.

Neil Young  and Crazy Horse at Xfinity Center in Mansfield. Photo: Scott McLennan

With “Powderfinger” and “Mansion on the Hill” Young returned to dramatizing the value of what needs to be protected and what is at risk if we let our guard down. Crazy Horse’s repertoire made these musings far more artful than, for example, when Young directly bashed Monsanto in songs with Promise of the Real.

And the bad guys are not always to be found outside. There are internal foes. Devastating versions of “Fuckin’ Up” and “Down By the River” conveyed what happens when wickedness and chaos are turned inward. Conversely, the archly defiant “I’m the Ocean” thrust forward how strong and determined anyone can be at any time. (“People my age, they don’t do the things I do,” Young sang.)

Messages aside, the concert also made room for just letting loose, apropos of a band that is all shambly and rambly and was led by a guy who kept his train cap pulled down low. “Roll Another Number (for the Road)” remains a great slice of honky-tonk Crazy Horse, while “Cinnamon Girl” still exudes flourishes of ’60s AM pop in its banged-up jangle.

Toward the end of the show Young performed solo on acoustic guitar and harmonica. His renditions of “Comes a Time,” “Heart of Gold” and “Human Highway” were stellar examples of his still-resonant vocal prowess (even if the range is a shave or two lower from where it was years ago), as well as his skill at putting delicate folk motifs across to an arena-sized audience.

Young unleashed the full-force gale of Crazy Horse for the concert’s finale. Following the acoustic segment, the band returned for “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black),” reveling in the tune’s signature lines about rock and roll never dying and rust never sleeping before lurching into some apocalyptic solos and jams.

The double-shot encore included a sprawling and haunting “Down by the River” followed by “Like a Hurricane,” which had Nelson manning a keyboard (decorated as a bird) that was tied to the rafters and swung freely as he played.

At any moment it looked as if the contraption might fall apart. But it didn’t. And that’s why Neil Young will probably always keep Crazy Horse close by.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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  1. John Kaminski on May 19, 2024 at 12:55 pm

    How about a review of Lenny Kaye’s “Nuggets” tribute Friday night at The Cut in Gloucester?

  2. thrasher on May 21, 2024 at 12:01 pm

    Nice. review! Exactly what we look for in our concert experiences: “tension between magnificent creativity and near collapse”

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