I have previously raved on about my love for the new album from Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Psychedelic Pill is a return to (ragged) glory, not perfect, but nevertheless a shining testament to the joys of the Horse in all their dynamic rage. To say that I was eagerly anticipating Thursday night's show at the Wells Fargo Center in Philly would be a gross understatement. It held the promise of the unrestrained, albeit longwinded, triumph that was the Weld tour in the early '90s. Sing a little, jam a lot, sing a little more, jam a lot more.
You don't pay Neil and the Horse to be succinct. Nor do you ever expect them to follow the rules, maaaaaan. And if a band devoid of an editor and flouting convention at every turn was all a concertgoer was in search of, then Thursday night's show delivered in spades. But, sadly, I left the arena with somewhat mixed feelings.
Overall, it really was a very good show. The setlist -- fairly static from night to night this tour, except for a rotating cast of encore songs -- went like this:
Love and Only Love
Born in Ontario
Walk Like a Giant
The Needle and the Damage Done
Singer Without a Song
Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)
Encore: Like a Hurricane
And, lord, they were soaring through those first few. Like a number of his similarly-aged contemporaries on guitar (Ted Nugent, despite his sometimes wretched mouth, comes to mind), Neil has continued to grow in epic bounds as a lead guitar player since the 1970s, leaving far in the dust the guy who did the minimalist solo on the title track of On the Beach for a feedback/volume/overdrive/distortion-driven approach that sounds a bit like Lee and Thurston from Sonic Youth channeling Hendrix and Leeds-era Townshend. He really and truly has his shit together in this department. And the three longer songs of the first four (Love..., Powderfinger and Walk....) were drenched in rising and falling waves of distortion-riddled power on the solos. And those solos went on and on with highs that screamed and lows that thundered and rumbled. And it really was glorious. Yes, raggedly glorious even. (You may see what I did there; yes, again).
And then... Walk Like a Giant ended. Or at least, it should have. But it didn't. Long after the solos (and the singing and the continued solos) died down, and even after the three or four minutes of noisy pounding that bring the tune to its close on the recorded version had ended, the feedback and drones went on....
And on and on and on.... And then, in the cheesiest display of cheesiness ever, while the band droned, roadies launched paper and plastic bags into the air to be blown across stage by big movable fans. See, kids, a storm was coming, or, with all the panache and skill of a third-grade school play, that's what Neil wanted you to think. So the band droned more and more and the roadies threw trash into the air and, oh god make it stop.... I didn't check the time, but it had to be at least ten minutes of pretty senseless feedback. Mind you, this wasn't the sort of feedback-within-a-solo feedback that, well, kind of rules when wielded appropriately. This had all the subtlety and control of, well, things that have no subtlety and control. My metaphor-maker cannot hope to convey to you how dull this was.
And I really *like* expertly-employed noise, but this was pointless. Worse, it was lengthy and pointless.
But, yes, that episode of "What the Fuck, Neil?" eventually came to a close, and there was, on the video screen, "rain" (remember, a storm was blowing through) and eventually Neil did the Needle... solo acoustic. And that was fine (and brief). Twisted Road, with its paean to the Dead and Roy Orbison, was also done (quite fine, albeit not earthshatteringly, thank you) solo acoustic and then, perhaps (but not definitely, because I haven't told you about Fuckin' Up yet), I witnessed a potential award winner in the category of The Stupidest Thing I Have Seen Onstage In A Very Long Fucking Time.
Neil did a new song called Singer Without a Song. It is pretty dull. I like him at the piano -- The Bridge, L.A., etc -- but this was nothing like those. This was just dull. And, OK, everyone gets a dull song. But then dull morphed into stupid. For most of the song, a not-at-all-unattractive woman wandered the stage with a guitar case in hand. She never went near a microphone.
See, she was (get this....) the, um, singer without a song.
Just fucking kill me now. The third-grade-play antics of the close of Walk Like a Giant had, at this point, devolved to first-grade. Really, dude? You paid a hot-looking woman to wander the stage to prop up your atrocious new song? Ugh. The glory of those first few tunes had nearly completely faded.
Ramada Inn followed. And I thought it had a super-laconic start.... like overly-laconic. And, tainted by the nonsense of the previous section of the show, I was getting jaded. I might have even been getting cranky. I might have even told the dancing -- no, make that jiggling and undulating and repeatedly bumping into me -- enormous man next to me, in what my wife would call my "annoyed voice" and sporting what my kids would call my "Clint Eastwood face," and while drawing an imaginary line in the space between us, something like, "DUDE! You need to move the fuck over. Now." He may have moved a lot.
And then Neil, always a giver and a taker, saved the day. Motherfucking hell, the solos in Ramada Inn were gorgeous and dangerous and awesome. I mean he just *attacked* the guitar. And Poncho followed him wherever he went, slashing and driving the rhythm guitar when needed, and backing way the hell off when not. It was inspirational, and, yes, concert-saving, especially after what had immediately preceded it.
And Cinnamon Girl was, truly, a beautiful thing. Hell, I wouldn't have really guessed that I ever needed to hear that one. It's a perfectly good song, but I have heard it a lot. But they hit it hard, really hard. Ralph the drummer seemed to take a particular joy in throwing in the "Whoo!" more than once during the solos. They were giggling and having a great time.
And Fuckin' Up followed. And, see, I feel like I have a special bond with this song. My brother and I used to play this in a band in the early '90s, and, because there is, you know, potty talk in the lyrics (OK, in the title, even), no one but the most devoted Neil fans knew at the time that it wasn't our song. Said potty talk prevents it from ever being played on the radio. And it really is a thundering beast of a tune. And, traditionally, the Horse has a blast with it, extending it a bit with juvenile bluster. I always love it.
And for most of it -- OK, for the whole song as written -- it was great. But then juvenilia lapsed into double-dumbness. Much like on Walk Like a Giant, the extendo-ending became as long, or in this case longer, than the song. For eight minutes or so, Neil and Poncho devolved into third-rate disco funksters who sang about, yes, fucking up. And then it ended. And then it started up again. And my friend David loudly declared, "Neil, you are losing me!" And I had to agree. I have nothing, in theory, against twenty minutes of Fuckin' Up. I have a lot against twelve or so of those minutes having almost nothing to do with Fuckin' Up (except lyrically involving the word "fuck" over a barely-funky funk beat).
And then, well, Mr. Soul and Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) saved the day again. Both were blistering and savage, riddled with distortion and feedback-choked solos, and I wondered to my jaded self how Neil manages to save the day so often. Whether it is this show, or, well, his career, it is always an up and down ride with the old man. You, apparently, have to put up with interspersed nonsense every time. It's just that this show was, on the whole, awfully heavy with the nonsense. For a 2.5-hour set, counting the furious, longwinded, heavy-as-hell, pretty sweet take on Hurricane that was the encore, I think a good 45 minutes was crap. Boring crap. The rest was varying degrees of brilliant.
Adjust that ratio a bit and my take on the show would be significantly more positive than it appears.
And maybe, just maybe, Neil kind of got his ass handed to him by opener Patti Smith that night.
Patti went to high school just outside of Philly. She has a special bond with the area, and you could tell right from the outset that she was digging the hell out of this gig. She came through the music business in the mid-'70s when she had to scratch and claw and fight to get every break. It was an absurdly male-dominated business at the time, and she did it her way, not theirs. The four albums from Horses through Wave that constituted her early career are compelling, urgent records that you really ought to own. And then she took an enormously-long break to start a family, and, eventually, bury her husband, former MC5/Rendezvous Band guitar genius Fred "Sonic" Smith. After Fred's death, Patti then dove headlong back into music, and, while the albums have never been as great as those first four, she is, at age 65, still one hell of an energetic performer.
And she has two sides: there is the poetess/priestess/hippie/flowerchild who dominates much of her later work, and then there is the venom-spitting punk. Both made well-timed appearances on Thursday night. The set looked like:
Beneath the Southern Cross
It's a Dream
People Have the Power
Land >> Gloria
Barefoot started the proceedings with a happy yet insistent urgency. God, that riff is timeless, and the band rode it home. And Patti kept telling us how great it was to be in Philly. And for most of the set, she was a dancing, vibrant performer that hid her age well but mostly worked the poetess portion of her persona. She was beaming, but here and there, the intensity grew. Fuji-San started quietly and boomed by the end. So did Southern Cross. It's a Dream? Meh. It's a weak Neil song (from a a weak record, Prairie Wind), and it went nowhere. Then People Have the Power did what it always does: made me think, "Great verse, way too goofy chorus," but I know that some people really dig it, and the band certainly got into it. The intensity was back.
And then, holy shit...
A strange shift in personality came over Patti. Gone was the hippie kid, and out came the punk. Yup, the same one I saw rip through a savage version of "Rock and Roll Nigger" (from the Easter album) a few years ago in Camden, NJ that could have stopped time right then and there. She took off her shoes, opting for a barefoot stomp. She spat. The guys in front of me looked at each other like they never saw a girl do that. And she started chanting: "The boy was in the hallway...."
Land is one of those songs that everyone should know. I knew it before I ever knew it, hearing Ian McCulloch insert many of its lyrics into live versions of early Echo and the Bunnymen songs before I had ever heard all of Horses (I was a little slower to embrace NYC punk than the stuff from England that I had jumped on back in '77 and '78). God, it was spectacular. I tried to hold down my excitement until I was sure they were really going to do it rather than just use the opening poetry to launch into something else. And man, did they do it. Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty, on guitar and drums respectively, have always been able to lay down a galloping beat better than, well, maybe anyone. And they galloped with style, and ferocity. And Patti did the Watusi. And then, just when I thought it couldn't get any more intense, they sent the gallop of Land straight into the gallop of Gloria. Seamlessly, perfectly and, oh man.... G-L-O-R-I-A....
It was, really and truly one of those "I am so glad I just saw/heard that because that was Top Ten of All Time-worthy" moments.
It was *that* good.
So, when you read my Neil review, and think, "That jaded, cranky, perfection-demanding bastard just insulted my hero and expects too much out of an aging rock star," remember that I had *just*, moments before, seen an aging rock star do it exactly like it was intended to be.
Rock on, Patti. Rock on, Neil. Just remember, old guy, that, occasionally, less is more, and intensity is not the same as just making more noise.
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