Monday, March 4, 2013

Neil Young & Crazy Horse @ Perth Arena

I was just reading the many comments below the excellent concert review by the Perth press [link] and was mildly shocked and amused that almost half of them were negative. The disappointed people mostly shared the same sentiments; too few songs, not enough hits, too self-indulgent with the ultra-long guitar solos and unnecessary feedback and distortion, Neil not interacting with the crowd enough. Some people even walked out early. To them I say: this is a NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE show, not a Neil Young and Stray Gators show. What did you expect? Crowd-pleasing, sing-along hits? Lots of acoustic guitar and harmonica? Jeez, at least do some simple fucking research on the internet before coming to the show. With a Neil & Horse gig, you're either gonna be very happy or very pissed. You want nostalgia, go see The Eagles.

For over two hours last Saturday night, I thought I was in heaven. The whole experience was utterly surreal. This was paired with the fact that we were only less than ten metres away from Neil, just third or fourth row in GA. I've never been that close to a legend before. The band kicked off the Australian Tour at the new Perth Arena, which was a real cool-looking venue. Extremely clean, security were nice and helpful, the GA and merchandise lines were done in an orderly fashion and there was no pushing during the two-hour wait in front of the stage. The only downside was the air-con wasn't working too well, and it got hot near the stage with all the lights. But most importantly, the sound was crystal clear and LOUD.

The opening band was the Melbourne-based folk quartet, Husky. Very CSN-ish, maybe that's why they were picked to support. After that, there were these roadies (Neil's crew) dressed in white labcoats and gray wigs walking all over the stage, hooking up instruments, soundchecking, getting ready the set. Some were talking to each other, looking as though there was some kind of problem. The oversized road cases onstage are not something new; this Alchemy tour is a modern-day extension of the famed Rust Never Sleeps tour from the '70s. The lights go out and A Day In The Life blasts from the PA, while the roadies continue working onstage as the road cases are lifted up to reveal the giant Fender amps (the real amps were actually inside these props). And the tall, old-fashioned mic from above descends down. This is some bizarre pre-show entertainment.

Neil and the Horse strolls onstage looking slightly bewildered, like it's all part of the act. The Australian National Anthem starts playing and everyone sings along. Then they strap on their instruments and off they go. The whole show just felt like one jam session after another, one sonic assault after another. The opener, Love And Only Love lasted at least ten minutes long. Even the amazing Powderfinger was longer than usual with a few extended solo bars. Neil always looks like he's in a trance when he solos. He goes all apeshit over his Old Black. The Horse tends to play very close to each other. There's some sort of magical transference of vibe and energy when bassist Billy Talbot, and guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro stand so close to Neil. Being up-close allows you to see the expressions on the band's faces and the occasional glances they give one another. What a joy to watch. Besides, many people at the front were quite into it. I honestly wouldn't have enjoyed the show that much from the seats.

Born In Ontario sounded so much better and more rejuvenated than on the record. The organ present onstage felt like there was a ghost playing it. I was hoping they played Psychedelic Pill instead. Walk Like A Giant was an absolute monster. It was ragged, and loud, and bloody awesome. And it seemed to go on forever. This might have been the one that caused casual concert-goers to get up and leave. Many might have felt that the outtro coda was ten minutes too long, but I must admit it was pretty entertaining to watch. Billy and Neil stuck their hands into the fake Fender amps and played with the real knobs inside, creating the sound of devastating, apocalyptic thunder, which blended in with the dramatic stage lighting and effects. To make things even more 'cheesy', one of the roadies off the left side used a fan to blow wastepaper onto the stage. And I couldn't believe all this craziness was unfolding right in front of my eyes.

This was followed by a world premiere of a new song, Hole In The Sky. Another surefire way to disappoint people -- play tunes no one's ever heard of. The setlists during the North American tour last year have remained relatively unchanged, with just one or two mix-ups every show. So I was expecting somewhat the same here. Yet, Neil still continues to surprise. Instead of playing the usual The Needle And The Damage Done, he decided to break out a rare Heart Of Gold, which basically made everyone ecstatic. His voice was in fine shape. And to watch him walk around the stage back and forth while singing, man it was something. I'll never forget that moment. Then, as if to say the audience didn't deserve this, he went back to something less familiar, with a solid, acoustic rendition of Twisted Road, and then further into unknown territory with an unreleased Singer Without A Song, with him on piano, and accompanied by Poncho on acoustic and Billy on harmony. It was terribly gorgeous, and it should've been on Psychedelic Pill.

My favorite moment of the night was when the band played Ramada Inn. It was slightly slowed down, and it was the most transcendent version I've ever heard. The solos were completely different than on the record, and some portions he took the volume level further up. It provided for the show's most mesmerizing jam. Neil went places with his guitar on that, even the little fill-in licks during the choruses were great. I remember at one point there was some screw-up by Billy. That's Crazy Horse for you. And Poncho plays so simple that almost anyone can play like him; how ironic that he was wearing a Hendrix tee. The three of them are obviously not technically capable musicians, but they support Neil in a way no one else can (with of course all due respect to pros like Rick Rossas, Ben Keith and Chad Cromwell). Cinnamon Girl followed and that was only like the second crowd-pleaser of the night. I recalled Neil and his other band played it back in 2009 at Hyde Park, but this version with the Horse was so much rawer and edgier.

Another LONG one was Fuckin' Up, which on this tour took on a whole new life of its own. Poncho happily flashed his middle finger to the crowd in front, and we returned it right back at him. He was in high spirits all evening, and making lots of eye contact with our section. We were like just five metres away! The Horse looks really old, especially Billy and Ralph Molina, and Poncho looks more plum now. But they can easily sweep the floor as good as any rock band half their age. During the middle of the song there was a breakdown, where Neil constantly pointed at and called the audience "a fuck-up", while Poncho urged them to return the insults to Neil. It was a nice, comic-relief moment that went on a bit longer than expected.

The Crazy Horse take of Mr. Soul was as kick-ass as it came, and so was the ending of the main set with a downright dirty Hey Hey, My My. What a mighty force of nature it was. Neil acted like a man possessed. The encore break was another skit in itself, where the roadies came back onstage, revving up the crowd to protest against the cases coming down on the amps. And when the band came back onstage, I so wanted them to finish off with Like A Hurricane, or even Cortez The Killer. Roll Another Number was a peculiar choice, but in hindsight seemed quite appropriate, yet another testament to the enduring power and longevity of Crazy Horse.

I'm a million miles away from that helicopter day / No, I don't believe I'll be goin' back that way

And so concluded perhaps the second best show I have ever witnessed. I can now rest easy knowing that I've seen the Horse let loose. I would see them again in a heartbeat. European fans are in for a real treat this summer.

1. Love And Only Love
2. Powderfinger
3. Born In Ontario
4. Walk Like A Giant
5. Hole In The Sky
6. Heart Of Gold
7. Twisted Road
8. Singer Without A Song
9. Ramada Inn
10. Cinnamon Girl
11. Fuckin' Up
12. Mr. Soul
13. Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)
14. Roll Another Number (For The Road)