An incredibly skinny Neil Young donned a cowboy hat and did a a pretty good impersonation of himself circa the mid-Seventies when he and Crazy Horse turned up at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco for two sets on Wednesday night.
Young has long been in the habit of making last-minute, surprise Bay Area appearances for the last twenty-five years; the shows here were set-up as rehearsals for two South American festival dates next week. But with the exception of a couple of songs, the set could've been straight out Crazy Horse's prime time Seventies-era -- so who needs rehearsing?
Crazy Horse seems to thrive and play best when they rely on the moment-to-moment whims of their band leader; no matter how far apart the tours are spaced, somehow they always seem to be in sync and Wednesday night's show was no exception -- as if they'd never been away. Perhaps having been locked in a San Francisco studio together over the last few months had them itching to play.
Opening with the punky "Sedan Delivery," guitarist Poncho Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and Young shouted "gotta get away" in unison, jamming after each verse with such incredible vitality, it brought smiles to their faces, as well as to their audiences'. No one seemed to think twice about four old dudes bashing it up like teenagers. Actually, drummer Ralph Molina barely moved but was right on target the whole night.
The stage set up was purposefully bare, as if to resemble a garage, as no drapes covered the black brick walls or ladders and other real props dangling from the rafters. The only adornment up there was a statue of Crazy Horse resting on the drum riser.
"Don't Cry No Tears" got ground down to a garage-folk dirge; few in the crowd paid any attention, but fans in the pit indulged in the ritual raising of the fists. "Love and Only Love" followed; it's a song Young has mysteriously played repeatedly. However, by song's end, it became clear why: he loves to play it. The song hearkens back to his Seventies jams and it has some of the best solos ever. He knows it, and he jumped up and down throughout.
A short and sweet "Cinnamon Girl" was the first song to draw real cheers from the newbie Young fans in the (mostly) dotcom-er audience. The band slid straight into the similarly riffed "Fuckin' Up," during which Talbot got cranked up enough to get that full, fuzzy bass sound. Young sipped from a mug of hot liquid between songs, switched guitars frequently and looked confused a lot. Save for "hello" and "thank you," he didn't say a word.
The customary longwinded "Cortez the Killer" and another regular, "Like a Hurricane," closed out the first set as vocalists Pegi and Astrid Young joined in, and Sampedro switched to keyboard on the latter. Coming back to the stage with a fairly loose "Big Time," Young grabbed back any listeners he might've lost during the autobiographical epic by launching into the strictly fictional narrative "Powderfinger." Sort of the band's own "Freebird," (it's the one everyone yells for) it's as if they played it just so people would shut up.
During "Welfare Mothers," (a song the thinking-person's Young fan has long considered a little out-of-whack), Young encouraged Talbot to smash it up at the end. They crescendo-ed with one of their Arc-style sonic-trances. Much was made out of a drawn-out "Down By The River," and that was that. The band returned for one encore, a crusty version of "Hey Hey, My My." The house lights were turned up, the crowd sung along and a noise-jam provided the big finish. Thirteen songs, none of them new, were spread over the course of three hours. Surprisingly, no one was complaining, but then that would be Crazy -- like looking a gift Horse in the mouth.
Written by DENISE SULLIVAN
for RollingStone.com News