Neil Young fans know to always expect the unexpected. It’s encoded into his musical DNA.
After Young rose to fame in the late 1960s singing folksy acoustic songs, he suddenly swerved to loud and abrasive. He’s tried on so many guises, from techno to country to blues to rockabilly, that his own record company sued him for making albums that didn’t sound like Neil Young. He’s scrapped entire projects without warning and departed tours leaving only a note.
So two weeks ago, when Young made the surprising announcement he and classic backing band Crazy Horse were reconvening in Fresno for three “unrehearsed” shows May 1-3 at Warnors Theater, their first time on stage together since 2014, the air was thick with mystery.
Would we be getting a standard Neil Young & Crazy Horse setlist? Would the band play the entire 1975 album “Tonight’s the Night,” a live version of which was released last week? Or, since Young promised no rehearsals, would it be four guys standing on stage flubbing chords and breaks?
“Knowing what we know about him, we might be paying for the soundcheck,” said former Bee photographer Kurt Hegre, who made the drive from Sacramento for Tuesday night’s show. “I’d be all right with that, actually.”
From the time Young strode onto the stage and played the opening notes to “Big Time,” it was clear these old warhorses don’t need no stinkin’ rehearsals. “I’m still living in the dream we had,” Young sang in his signature falsetto. “For me it’s not over.”
Even at age 72, clearly not.
What sets Crazy Horse apart from the rest of Young’s musical accomplices? It’s Ralph Molina’s plodding, spacious manner of drumming. It’s the way Billy Talbot’s bass sounds like it’s bleeding over from the next room. The rhythm guitar and keyboard underpinnings of Nils Lofgren, filling in for Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, provide the bedrock that allow Young’s signature solos to venture into the sonic cosmos.
From his expressions and mannerisms, Young was happy to be back in the saddle with “the Horse” and especially Lofgren, a part-time member whose association with Young goes back nearly five decades. Almost right away the two played facing each other with big grins, locked in a tight formation.
Young also seemed happy to return for just his third Fresno concert appearance, according to the website sugarmtn.org. He was last here in July 2006, at Save Mart Center, with CSNY. The first time was an October 1988 show at Warnors with backing band The Bluenotes.
Being back on stage at the 90-year-old venue, with its baroque decor and warm acoustics, played a major role in that.
“These places are unbelievably great,” Young said between songs. “We’re lucky they’re still here.”
“Maybe we should play this theater all the time,” he added, much to the appreciation of the locals who helped fill every red felt seat.
The one-hour, 45-minute set spanned nearly Young’s entire catalog with Crazy Horse. Young played mostly on “Old Black,” his trademark 1953 Les Paul Goldtop, but also swapped out for a Fender Telecaster and the Gretsch White Falcon he’s had since his days with Buffalo Springfield. Two songs featured Young’s acoustic guitar.
Following a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Cinnamon Girl,” one of Young’s most recognizable tunes with its fuzzy, catchy riff, the lights in the theater dimmed as the band loped into the distinctive intro of “Cortez the Killer.” Which is exactly the pace Young wanted. At one point he even decelerated the tempo by raising a hand over his head and bringing it down to shoulder height.
What resulted was the slowest, spookiest version of “Cortez the Killer” I’ve ever heard and definitely the evening’s highlight. From this soft nest of chords and drums, Young’s aching, note-bending solos soared to the stratosphere. That song alone was worth the $69.50 for a balcony seat, and even the stupid $10 service fee.
There were indications this wasn’t a polished performance. At one point Young didn’t like the sound his Stratocaster was making and handed it back to his guitar tech with a shake of his head. After “Fu@#in’ Up,” which featured some of Young’s wildest playing, he told the crowd “I almost forgot the words.” Young then proceeded to sit down on the stage and re-tie his shoe.
When it came to the encore, I was hoping for at least one more song. (No “Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World,” what?) And taking up considerable room on the stage was a baby grand piano no one bothered to play. (Lofgren did spend a couple songs behind an upright.) Perhaps Young is saving them for the two remaining shows.
Of course, those are quibbles. Everyone I talked to sounded thrilled and appreciative just to be there and that Young chose Fresno to unleash the Horse.
“It’s like Bob Dylan,” Julie Hagen of Fresno said. “You don’t want to miss him because you don’t know how many more times you’ll get to see him.”
Father Time eventually catches up with all of us. But as Young proved Tuesday night, he hasn’t lost a step.
Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee
Don’t Cry No Tears
World On a String
Scattered (Let’s Think About Livin’)
Too Far Gone
Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Cortez the Killer
Like a Hurricane
Mansion On the Hill
Roll Another Number