by Brett Essler
If there is a professional ranking system for Neil Young fandom, I’d place myself just above amateur. I like the Neil records everybody agrees on, but have found things to love on some of the more divisive ones. My interest in his new music since his early-to-mid-’90s run with Crazy Horse has waxed and waned depending on my internal nostalgia index and the relative cringe factor of his musical whims. Despite this merely passing interest in Neilcana, I will often, in the depths of insomnia, lurk on message boards where Neilophiles bemoan a world in which Homegrown remains unissued while Fork in the Road is readily available. Perhaps I like the train wreck more than the music.
2012, however, was feeling like a pro-Neil year: a rambling new memoir, putting the Horse back together for some epic jams, ranting about the craptacular quality of MP3s. The David Carr profile and Neil’s charming Daily Show interview sealed the deal. Neil had won back my trust, or at least my curiosity.
I had not been to a concert in a sports arena in probably 15 years and had sworn off the exorbitant ticket prices, drums ricocheting off the back wall, and weekend warriors, emboldened by $12 drafts, screaming for the one song they know. But memory is selective and as I hit the purchase button I remembered only the good things: Sonic Youth opening for Neil and the Horse during a February Buffalo snowstorm. The Gulf War was the backdrop, and Neil adorned his Rust Never Sleeps stage set with a giant yellow ribbon. He played a plaintive and quite beautiful version of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I am quite certain “Like a Hurricane” lifted the roof off the old Memorial Auditorium, which within a few years would be rubble.
Brooklyn’s new, controversial Barclays Center, where Neil and the Horse stopped for a December show on their Alchemy tour, is a far cry from the Brutalist concrete boxes where most people my age watched their first concert or hockey game through a thick haze of smoke.
Approached from the front, the building bears an uncanny resemblance to the spaceship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If that spaceship had ads on it. In her opening set, Patti Smith likened it to a cockroach. Young also acknowledged it, noting that rust, indeed, never does sleep. And, yes, it is rusty in a Richard Serra sort of way. I’m obviously not an architecture critic, but I actually kind of like how it looks. Inside, everything, down to the seatbacks, is branded.
Also, inside: Thurston Moore, hanging out by the escalator like any other Horsehead. If you walk around New York with any frequency you have probably seen one of the members of Sonic Youth visually inspecting an avocado so this is no big whoop, but Moore’s towering presence is so intertwined with Neil in my mind and memory this seemed like a good omen.
Patti Smith opened this show. I’ve always liked Patti Smith, but perhaps more out of respect than enjoyment. This performance changed that. Unlike the drawn-out, self-indulgent Smith show I saw about ten years ago, her 40-minute opening set was direct, powerful, and showcased everything great about Patti Smith. Her voice sounded incredible, the song choice and pacing were spot on, and her barefoot-beatnik dancing was charming in this small dose. By the end of her set (G-L-O-R-I-A!) the arena was nearly filled and she had the audience in the palm of her hand.
OK, so Neil Young. You tend to forget just how odd this guy is. I recalled the first time I encountered him, a televised concert special from his Trans era. Dude is wearing wraparound shades and singing through a vocoder like some acid casualty robot. I will also submit into evidence: Human Highway, the film.
The current tour’s stage props would be familiar to you if you’ve seen the Rust Never Sleeps film (or some subsequent Crazy Horse tours), though the Einsteiny technicians in lab coats and construction workers in reflective vests are a concession to a copyright infringement case. After several minutes of wild gesticulation, the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” come crashing to its conclusion, the amps are revealed, and the entire band and crew stands in a row for the national anthem. The audience is conflicted — is this an unironic national anthem (stand up, hat off) or some kind of performance art? I think it’s the former and I miss the Jawa roadies.
The musical and thematic continuum here is Rust Never Sleeps -> Ragged Glory -> Psychedelic Pill, with Pill’s epic “Walk Like a Giant” and “Ramada Inn” the centerpieces of the set. “Giant” is a mixed bag. Sit through some whistling that I’m pretty sure was piped in — I never took the Horse to be such on-key whistlers — and some lyrics about the death of the hippie dream and you’ll be treated to approximately eight minutes of lurching, stomping, and amp farts as one of the lab coat roadies uses an industrial-sized fan to blow crumpled paper across the stage. A bit on the nose, but entertaining.
“Ramada Inn” is a winner in my book, probably more “Danger Bird” than “Like a Hurricane” musically, with lyrics about a relationship that is either really strong or super abusive. Then again, it was never really about the lyrics.
At 5:54, Ragged Glory’s "F*!#in' Up" is arguably one the Horse’s best moments on record. The guy behind me agrees and sings along to every word in Neilish: “I can see you on the heeee-aaalllll.” It’s pretty great for awhile, until Young actually manages to fuck up “Fuckin’ Up.” First, he ends the relentless riffing for a needless breakdown. Then, he lets Frank Sampedro take the mic for some juvenile vamping, a precious five minutes he could devoted to, I don’t know, “Winterlong.”
Young took to the piano for a new, unreleased number “Singer Without a Song,” which distractingly featured a young woman with a guitar case wandering the stage. The song didn’t need an actor — it’s poignant on its own and hints that fans can perhaps expect another Prairie Wind-style country-folk record next year.
From the hits department, we get “Cinnamon Girl,” “Mr. Soul,” “Needle and the Damage Done,” and the perennial “Hey Hey, My My” with a nod to fellow memoirist Pete Townshend. The setlists have been pretty stagnant on this tour, but I had been holding out for hope of a surprise 15-minute “Down by the River” encore. As soon as I saw the spinning green leaf lights I knew ol’ Shakey was planning to “Roll Another Number for the Road.”
 Re*ac*tor, anyone?
 “Let’s Roll”? Let’s not.
 Neil does seem to get this despite his who-gives-a-shit attitude towards quality control and fan satisfaction. Two-thirds of the way through his set, he took took the crowd on a Crazy Horse time machine. I was disappointed to learn this was not an actual biodiesel-fueled time machine he had invented on his ranch, but a short interlude where Young scraped his guitar strings and randomly mentioned album titles from his back catalog. Most telling editorial commentary he offered during this trip back in time? “Everybody’s Rockin’ — what the hell was that?”
 It may have even been the Broken Arrow tour, but it’s all a little hazy.
 After her set, I sought out Banga, her 2012 release, and it’s been on repeat since.
 Not that I was counting.
 It’s better to burn out than to f-f-f-f-f-fade away.
https://soundcloud.com/hidden-track/neil-young-and-crazy-horse — you’re welcome.