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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Concert Review of the Moment: Neil Young + Crazy Horse, Fresno, CA - May 1st, 2nd & 3rd, 2018

NYCH - May 1, 2 & 3
Warnor Theater, Fresno, CA
Photo by Kellner (via HtH)

The Concert Review of the Moment is from the recent Neil Young + Crazy Horse, Fresno, CA by long time TW reader Mark "Don't Spook The Horse" Golley.


THREE NIGHTS IN FRESNO - NYCH ~ May 1st, 2nd & 3rd

“The Horse is ready to leave the barn”. Eight simple words that opened the newest chapter of Neil Young’s tangled and complex, five-decade-long love affair with cosmic soulmates Crazy Horse.

The 72 year old Canadian’s April proclamation that the band were ready, willing and able was swiftly followed by further startling news on the NYArchives web page. Below that characteristic lone rider logo (which has become almost synonymous with Crazy Horse) was stencilled “NYCH May 1 + 2 Fresno”. Things were happening fast and when he’s in the mood, few musicians equal Neil Young’s impulsive nature.

Ohio was written, recorded (with CSN) and released within four days of the Kent State shootings in 1970. Living With War, Young’s vehement protest album against George W. Bush, was recorded and released within weeks in 2006. Now, NYCH were to emerge from the barn, with an impetuous, noisy swish of the tail.

Warnor Theater, Fresno, CA
Photos by Hounds that Howl
(Click photo to enlarge)

Ten days after the Fresno dates were announced (and a third show added), the Horse were on stage for the first time in five years. That was fast, by anyone’s standard.

Crazy Horse have been Neil’s band of brothers for 49 years. It hasn’t always the smoothest of relationships (as the documentary Muddy Track attests) while personnel changes have been few and far between. At the band’s core, alongside Young, are two 75 year olds, drummer Ralph Molina and bass player Billy Talbot along with second guitarist, since 1975, Frank Sampedro.

Sampedro wasn’t in Fresno of course and there was little mention as to why. There was hushed fan rumour, but no real facts. In 2014 Poncho told Rolling Stone “I want to do a tour where we can say goodbye”. But he was absent from this Californian return. “Poncho isn’t able to join us right now” said Young, “but we all hope he’ll be back”. Fresno (and the Bakersfield shows that followed) had, resolutely, been billed as “NYCH”, a “Horse of a different colour”, suggesting that Neil Young was perhaps acutely aware of the naming implications without Sampedro (there were no such qualms in 2014 though). Poncho’s replacement couldn’t have been more appropriate though; a Crazy Horse original (from their brilliant first album), long-term, if somewhat sporadic, sidekick (and E Street band member), Nils Lofgren.

Lofgren’s Grin supported Young at the Roxy for those notorious shows in 1973. He’d then hop up on stage to join the Santa Monica Flyers (the same personnel as Fresno, bar the late Ben Keith) that, through the pool-hall dope-smoke haze and discarded bottles of Jose Cuervo, spat out the bruising Tonight’s The Night. His appearance back in the fold was as remarkable as the latest beguiling instalment of the band’s history, constructed in the early May warmth on the edge of the San Joaquin Valley.

And history was where the component parts of the shows’ set-lists were rooted, chosen from, amongst others, a number of critically acclaimed classic Neil Young records; After The Goldrush, Zuma, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Ragged Glory and Tonight’s the Night/Roxy Live. The 100+ minute opening show was shot through with a raw purity (and, at times, unparalleled brutal elegance) that only Crazy Horse seem able to offer. The meandering beauty of Cortez the Killer juxtaposed against the primeval Fuckin’ Up, the fragility of Freedom’s Too Far Gone contrasting with the epic soundscape of (the perfectly chosen) show opener Big Time from Broken Arrow, that oft-forgotten Crazy Horse record from the mid-90’s, a record that also yielded one of the rarer songs of the three nights in Fresno, Scattered, the first outing for 22 years.

It turns out that set-list “clues” were strewn across Young’s Archives pages, many of the songs featured appearing as “Song of the Day” ahead of the Horse’s return, a return which was continually described by Neil Young as being totally unrehearsed. An extraordinary first night sounded anything but unrehearsed. As a unit, they were (uncharacteristically you could argue) succinct and crisp, Cinnamon Girl and Like A Hurricane showcasing a group who appeared well-drilled, tight and taught whilst retaining that eternal garage band charm. Talbot steadfast and resolute, Molina at the heart of driving the band forward, Lofgren adding unfussy class to the proceedings, eyes eternally on the leader as Neil Young soloed like his life depended on it.

It probably did…

That first night in Fresno, within the beautiful Warnors Theatre, was shot through with an atmosphere quite unlike anything I’ve encountered at a NY gig (CH or otherwise). Perhaps that palpable excitement (and uncluttered joy) stemmed from there being so many dedicated NY fans in the house (not that many, what did they use to say on Rust, HOGTT). To a man and a woman, everyone was willing Crazy Horse on to succeed. And what we got was an unbridled success ~ one of the crispest, tightest and neatest CH shows I've seen. Yes, it may have been ragged around the edges at times but they were so focussed and "on it". No meandering off into walls of squalling feedback (which I really enjoy but it didn’t feel as though Fresno was the time or place for that); almost every song having precision at the core (with setlists showing timings to the second!) and sounding so much better for it. They were loud and proud and delivering time after time.

Across the following two nights, there were stumbles and there were tweaks within the sets ~ night 2 was fine, this was Crazy Horse after all, but they seemed a little less cohesive (Mansion on the Hill for instance was messy, too fast a tempo, multiple tempos on the go in fact, although plenty present preferred it to Night 1) while one or two other songs lost a little of their lustre from that historic first night, but what a super encore though ~ the country-punk of The Losing End a delight at the end of the evening. The third show was a curate’s egg of a show. Neil seemed to get in to a really strong groove on Old Black, at one point turning the Falcon away, before muddling himself with the set and then only doing 75 minutes maximum ~ short even for NYCH but despite that slight disappointment, it was as arguably as strong a performance as the Show 1.

I’ve not heard a Cortez as fine as the one that drifted high in to the beautifully ornate Warnors rafters during the webcast show on May 1st. Each night Fuckin' Up (which I got so, so bored with on the Alchemy tour) was as good as I've heard, despite lasting seven or eight minutes, it was muscular and lean with a wild, feral undercurrent. Big Time was a majestic opener and when relegated to Song 2 on the final evening, it was replaced by a sublime Love And Only Love, another ebullient effort and, once again, it was all the better for the discipline exacted on it. The Falcons flew (the beautiful White one for Neil, a gorgeous Black one for Nils), the Stringman descended for a storming Hurricane and whichever guitar he played it on, World On A String was a boozy bar-room gem.

Neil Young’s playing was exemplary throughout, wild and slightly unhinged when required, gently understated where appropriate and his voice sounded fuller and more robust than recent times. Billy Talbot, who’s mild stroke saw him miss the 2014 European tour (another set of shows where fans debated the semantics of when is the Horse not the Horse) looked exhausted at the end of night one, concentration etched in to his deeply furrowed brow, seemingly trying his hardest to get things right. Neil would have busted his chops in the old days with his missed vocal cues ~ this time it was all smiles and friendly, if slightly pointed, reminders at Billy’s mike. Happily, Billy looked more relaxed and at ease on Fresno 2 and 3, the bass thump such a character of his art back to the fore, resonating into the collective gut of the front row.

Ralph Molina was akin to a colossus during the first night. His drumming style is often discussed, but along with Billy’s bass, it’s as vital to the truly unique Crazy Horse sound as anything from Old Black. You forget too, how fine his singing and harmonies with Neil can be and just how important they are too. On Fresno Night 1, Ralphie was the driving force of the band, sweet of voice and never missing a beat, pushing the Horse on and on as Neil raged and cut loose, whilst Billy held the groove and Nils followed Neil with clever killer second lead chops.

Lofgren was sensational. Despite his exceptional musicianship and his acknowledged love of Neil Young’s music, here he was thrown in at the deep end. A late replacement for Sampedro, he learnt his part fast. And he learnt it exceptionally well. At times a mesmerising stage presence, he was minimalist when needed, following Neil's every move and getting everything right on the money. His gentle steel on Too Far Gone was exquisite and his piano fills (and vocals right off of Roxy) were exemplary. His guitar playing was a treat from start to finish (how I wished for him to don the sound-checked accordion). He really looked out for Billy too, especially through Fresno 2 & 3 which was very touching, like a younger brother taking care of his older sibling, keeping an eye on him, guiding gently when and if needed. I don’t recall anything like that at any Neil gig and it was rather lovely to see in its own sweet way.

The look on the faces of each member of this astonishing band as they accepted the standing ovations on each Fresno night was a picture. Smiles as broad as the Fresno stage, holding each other, brothers in arms, taking the plaudits after a job well done. It brought tears to the eyes, the warmth between fans and artists a genuine two-way street.

There’s no idea as to whether NYCH (with Nils or maybe Poncho) will surface again. I suspect that if, and when, they do it will be similar affair ~ two or three nights in one spot, repeat elsewhere and then do it again somewhere else sometime later. Those present over the three nights at the start of May witnessed an amazing event, a true event ~ epic isn't out of place by way of describing the Fresno happening (especially that remarkable raw and punchy Night 1).

For now, Neil Young seems to be keeping options wide open though, hence some fans will manage NYCH, NYPOTR and NYSolo, all within the space of two months.


The road runs on and on and whilst we have everyone here, should this particular incarnation of Neil Young’s very greatest outfit head anywhere near you, drop everything, clear the decks, pay the money and dance. It’s what I did. It’s what 2000 others did too.

Warnor Theater, Fresno, CA
Photo by Hounds that Howl
(Click photo to enlarge)

No one will ever forget Fresno.

No one will ever forget Crazy Horse.

Mark Golley

Thanks Mark "Don't Spook The Horse"! Excellent review and a very enjoyable read. Also, thanks to TW Tour Manager Hounds That Howell for photos!

Crazy Horse - Unrehearsed
Logo by Geoff Moore Silver Moon Art & Design & Hounds That Howell

More reviews on Neil Young + Crazy Horse, Fresno, CA.

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At 5/20/2018 12:09:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Awesome review, thanks for sharing!

At 5/20/2018 01:45:00 PM, Blogger Paul Dionne said...

Such an excellent review - thanks Mark

paul dionne

At 5/20/2018 02:44:00 PM, Blogger Hambone said...

Mark, thanks for that complete review. Glad you had a chance to get in.

I had the pleasure of talking to Nils Lofgren last week after one his UK shows and asked him how genuinely "unrehearsed" these shows actually were. He replied that the band met up at a hotel a day or so before hand and talked about what songs to do and rehearse a few harmonies, but the first time they actually played together was at the soundcheck on the 1st.

This isn't too odd - Nils' website is currently showcasing his "Blind Date Jam" sessions which were also spontaneous events with some collaborators.

So what we heard at Fresno was the real deal.

Oddly enough I spoke to my oldest school friend of some 45 years last night - we've only emailed for the past 18 months or so - and without a drop of the beat we were talking, pausing and understanding each other with that near telepathic insight of people you know really well - it's doesn't fade with the years and Neil & Co showed us how it can still create great art.

Tony (Hambone) Hammond UK

At 5/20/2018 03:35:00 PM, Blogger wsanjose01 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5/20/2018 03:54:00 PM, Blogger rolandthompsongunner said...

Really nice review, Mark! I was only able to see the webcast and this really puts words to a lot the feelings I had that night.

At 5/21/2018 11:10:00 AM, Blogger romat73 said...

Great review Mark, thanks for this post. Excellent
Interesting details on Hambone's comment too, thanks.

At 5/23/2018 12:57:00 PM, Blogger acidfrank said...

nice review of the shows. i have watched + listened to the youtub vids + some audio recordings.

imo - Pancho was not missed at all. Nils is a much better musician + singer anyway. maybe too good for the garage band sound?

has anyone verified that Nils was a "last minute replacement" for Poncho?
or maybe Neil had intended all along to invite Nils?
maybe that is why Poncho was absent?
who knows? it doesn't matter. i just hope Nils is available next time too!

At 5/23/2018 03:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've really liked the gigs with this excellent "new" band, and Nils is in a class of his own; but he has a very different sound to Poncho. His contributions on these shows have also been sublimely understated and minimalistic; a "less is more" approach which fits Neil perfectly.

So yes, Nils is a "better" musician than Poncho. Newsflash: Crazy Horse aren't particularly known for their technical prowess. What they do have is a lot of soul and an unmatched exciting chemistry between them. Everything just fits together in an exciting and explosive way. "Better" in this context has little to do with music theory or technical mastery.

That said, I think Poncho is underrated as a guitarist. Because it's not always clear to the listener what he is playing in isolation from Neil. But fellow musicians will recognise how perfect a rythym guitarist he is for Neil.

Check out Down By The River from Rock Am Ring 2002 as a classic example of how accomplished he is; or Change Your Mind from Sleeps With Angels.

For someone apparently superfluous, he sure has a strange habit of showing up on most of Neil's best records and tours.


At 5/23/2018 08:46:00 PM, Blogger wsanjose01 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.


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