For Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Tonight Was Not the Night: Concert Review

Maybe it was the chilly temperatures, steady breeze and light spatterings of rain, which take a toll when a person is standing outdoors on an elevated platform — like the stage of a concert venue — for two hours. Or maybe it was just an off night. But the feverishly passionate reviews for the first dates of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s “Love Earth” tour — their first in a decade — bore little resemblance to the band that plodded through its set Wednesday evening at the second of a two-night stand New York’s Forest Hills Stadium. And the fact that they were plodding through a stunning setlist of songs from the peak of Young’s illustrious career only made it worse.

Neil, of course, was fine — he possesses a superhuman energy and drive that has diminished very little as he nears his ninth decade on Earth. He sounded old even when he was young, so the odd cracks and creaks in his voice and occasional bum notes in his magnificently brutal guitar playing are part of the charm. And the same is usually true for Crazy Horse, the band he’s played with off and on since 1968: They’ve always been on the verge of train-wrecking, with that wild energy and abandon that threatens to crash into chaos at any moment and sometimes does. That’s part of the intangible magic that can make rock and roll so exciting, and Young, who has nothing if not high standards, has always valued it — one of their best albums together is called “Ragged Glory.”

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But a band, especially a live rock band, is only as good as its rhythm section, and on Wednesday night, the once-mighty Crazy Horse began wandering off the track as soon as they’d started. Most of the songs were played significantly slower than their recorded versions, sometimes approaching a sludgey, almost doom-metal tempo. Drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot, both 80, could barely keep things moving, missing beats and losing time. Rhythm guitarist Micah Nelson — country legend Willie’s 33-year-old son, who is new to this band but has been playing with Young for a decade — did his best to hold things together, but Young was cutting songs off at the earliest opportunity, where in the past he’d often just be getting started.

The opening salvo was a 10-minute “Cortez the Killer” (with some newly rediscovered lyrics) into “Cinnamon Girl” into “Fuckin’ Up” into “Down by the River” — how could that not be great? But the initial bumpiness of the playing got worse as the night went on, and even though the bandmembers got a 15-minute breather while Young played several classics acoustically late in the set, the break didn’t help much. They trudged through “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” “Like a Hurricane” and an incomplete reprise of “Roll Another Number (for the Road)” before calling it a night.

To be fair, the last time I saw Neil and Crazy Horse was in 1996 — when they blew the roof off of Madison Square Garden with an electrifying set filled with so many great songs that you couldn’t believe it — and a spot listen to YouTube recordings of other concerts on this tour, including the previous night’s, shows the band playing better, sometimes much better. But this show had a killer setlist too — and apparently the tour’s debut of “Mansion on the Hill” — and hearing those timeless songs played by what at times sounded like your uncle’s covers band only made things worse. Young, who usually includes at least some more-recent material in his sets, kept it classic — just one song from the ‘90s, nothing newer — which suggests that maybe he knows this is probably Crazy Horse’s last ride.

It’s a fact of biology to say that elderly rock and roll is always going to be like an old-timers’ baseball game: No matter how much energy they display onstage, nearly all vocalists past a certain age must sing in lower registers. Paul McCartney, the Stones, Elton John and many other in the 70-and-above group are able to deliver stadium-sized sets thanks to low-key but essential support from auxiliary players and singers — Springsteen’s current tour band totals 18 musicians. Drummers, obviously, have it hardest of all: The Stones’ late, great Charlie Watts must have been a freak of nature to power through two-hour sets into his late 70s; most older bands with their classic-era drummers are supported on tour with percussionists. And let’s be honest, whether we realize it or not, prerecorded backing tracks have become so ubiquitous at major concerts that our ears may be unaccustomed to not hearing them.

Neil Young has never done any of that and never will — he even made a crack about it early in the show, while waiting for his roadie to tune his ubiquitous battered Gibson Les Paul. “We have to make sure all the backing tracks are in synch,” he joked.

None of this is to say that older humans can’t be superhuman musicians or shouldn’t be touring and performing. But this band has two months’ worth of dates ahead of it, and on Wednesday night, it was hard not to wish that Neil had put the spurs on.

Cortez the Killer
Cinnamon Girl
Fuckin’ Up
Down by the River
Scattered (Let’s Think About Livin’)
Roll Another Number (For the Road)
Don’t Cry No Tears
Mansion on the Hill
Danger Bird
Love and Only Love
Comes a Time
Heart of Gold
Human Highway
I Am a Child
Sugar Mountain
Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)
Like a Hurricane
Encore 2:
Roll Another Number (For the Road) (reprise, incomplete)

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