Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Friday, Aug. 10, 2012
Outside Lands Festival, San Francisco
Better than: Any Pearl Jam concert.
While he's putting everything into a solo, Neil Young's face looks like his electric guitar sounds: flush with feeling, vaguely threatening, and thoroughly aged. Not old as in frail, but venerable; geologic. On the chilly, windy opening night of San Francisco's Outside Lands festival, Young the legend and his old group of noisemakers treated the sold-out crowd to a demonstration of rock as dinosaur music: gray hair and ancient, howling amplifiers, unapologetic nostalgia, 15-minute jams, the singer's O.G. nasal twang spooning out at times a bit too much lyrical honesty to keep the buzz going. (Even if they then built it back up.) It was the exact opposite of today's byte-sized, hyper-compressed, we'll-do-anything-to-hold-your-attention music culture. And it was great -- occasionally.
Most bands giving a headlining performance at a major festival would keep their set list to the greatest hits side of things. Or perhaps play a bunch of songs off the record they just released. Not Neil Young and Crazy Horse. They spent nearly half of their two hours last night trying out new tunes from their upcoming album -- songs no one except Young obsessives have heard yet. "Ontario" and "Walk Like a Giant" both sounded like classic, dirty Crazy Horse dirges, but our favorite was the new acoustic song about hearing Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" for the first time. There wasn't a single selection from the album of Americana covers Young and Crazy Horse put out this year.
Young never apologized for the set list, but he did obliquely quip about its newness: After a long, bleak new tune about alcoholism, he said, "I wrote this one this morning" -- just before launching into "Cinnamon Girl." You could feel a collective sigh of relief from the shivering masses. "Fuckin' Up" brought a familiar, reckless joy, and Young trading middle fingers and sumo-dancing in sync with Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, his longtime guitarist. All four musicians spent the show close to one another, often maintaining eye contact, which contributed to the feeling that the performance was more for benefit of the guys onstage than the tens of thousands watching.
Until the end, that is. Young and his mates aired a towering version of "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" that nearly keeled us over with its power. The song -- which has Young laying down a guttural riff and insisting, "Rock and Roll will never die" -- confirmed the larger theme of the set. When he sang, it's "Better to burn out/ than to f-f-f-f-fade away," dragging it out and leaning over to taunt the crowd, it felt like all of Golden Gate Park was on the receiving end of some very rare and hard-earned wisdom. Here, with his snarling visage and snarling guitars, Young's age was a trump card, an exalted status only he and his bandmates possessed. They may not have done what most fans would've wanted. But they'd certainly earned the right not to.
Young musing on songwriting: "We can't help ourselves, we're trained like chimps. They trained us to write songs and we don't know how to stop."
1. Love and Only Love
3. Ontario [New Song]
4. Walk Like a Giant [New Song]
5. The Needle and the Damage Done (Young solo acoustic)
6. [New song about hearing "Like a Rolling Stone" for first time]
7. Ramada Inn/ Every Morning Comes the Sun [New Song]
8. Cinnamon Girl
9. Fuckin' Up
10. Party Girl [New Song; "Sign of Love" with different lyrics]
11. Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)
12. Mr. Soul
13. Roll Another Number (For the Road)