Neil Young looks like he slipped the Crypt-keeper some gold to be let out of the underworld for a few hours. I mean that as the highest compliment. He and his band, Crazy Horse, have gotten to the age, after decades of rock and roll abuse, where they resemble not so much the pretty “vampires” we have grown used to from the likes of Twilight and True Blood, but rather the real deal: charnel-hungry, bloodthirsty, undead monsters.
I’ve come to think of America’s best inventions, including rock and roll, as the history of human endeavor jacked up on fossil fuels, the result of America’s genius for figuring out how to use the power trapped inside oil to enhance every known activity. A car is just a horse carriage on oil. Likewise with electric lights and candles, washing machines and washboards, computers and abaci, etc. Similarly, rock and roll, at its core, is folk music electrified and amplified to previously unachievable volumes. Neil Young seems to get this.
Young plays using not just the amps on stage, but the entire 500,000-watt PA system at his disposable. He and Crazy Horse create a beautiful, loud, thick wall of electric sound, which he periodically cuts through with piercing solos like a man wielding a jackhammer. Young was never a precision player, and that penchant suits him well now. Whereas other aging rockers struggle to replicate the intricate, proggy licks of their youth, Young takes his beautifully simple riffs and plays the hell out of them. He is not afraid to jam -- really jam, going out there farther and weirder than I’ve seen any other rocker do in years -- and in that pursuit he stomps on pedals, does his signature lurch, and strangles the neck of “Old Black”, his trademark black Les Paul with the rare, but crucial for Young, Bigsby vibrato arm.
It’s clear from last night’s show at Red Rocks that this tour is no lazy cash-in. It felt more like a demonstration of everything Young has learned from his decades of experimentation, his many tours with Crazy Horse, and his frequent left turns. He approached the tunes like a wise, old, rock wizard, showing you how he takes common ingredients and creates stunning magic. It would be tempting to call what he produced garage rock due to its simplicity, but no garage would be able to survive this high-decibel assault.
My only complaint is I would’ve liked to have heard more of the all-time classics. A majority of the show was new (or new-ish) and lesser-known tunes. I would’ve killed, for instance, to hear “Cortez the Killer”. But that complaint feels trivial when afforded the privilege of witnessing a display of such pure rock awesomeness. If playing new tunes is how Young keeps it fresh for himself and maintains his mastery, then who am I to quibble? Besides, the new tunes are pleasingly familiar. As Neil himself quipped before playing one of them, “Now, be nice to this next song. It’s a new one. But it sounds exactly like an old one.”
In between the beauty, Young engaged in a higher than average amount of stage banter – which is to say, he made a few gnomic utterances here and there. He bemoaned the inaccuracy of twitter posts about his shows (“Don’t believe everything you read. They get the titles of the songs wrong.”), made a few jokes (introducing Cinnamon Girl with “I wrote this next one this morning”), and asked the band if they had ever played Red Rocks before (the band couldn’t come up with a definitive answer). He acknowledged his gabbiness later in the evening. by saying “I’m talking a lot tonight. You know what that means?... I’m nervous… I’m stressed out… Let me know how we’re doing.”
Just fine, Neil. You’re doing just fine.
Caveat: all the stage quotes are from memory. And in full journalistic disclosure: I was high off a particularly potent strain of Colorado’s medicinal wonder. Normally I wouldn’t feel this need to divulge this, but after John Lehrer got pilloried for misquoting Dylan, all of us bloggers are starting to get nervous…