The Horse is loosed upon the land
Four guys. Full on. With a tale to tell, in a language all their own. Well, I suppose the language isn’t unique – bass, drums, rhythm guitar, lead guitar in 4/4 time – and truth be told, it’s a pretty darn simple set of phonemes. In the hands of Neil and Crazy Horse, though, the playful, propulsive thrash of garage band chaos opens into a mythic tunnel of glorious noise, a Primal Rock and Roll Orchestra.
On Friday night under a star-spangled sky laced with moon-glowing clouds, a few thousand New Mexicans were lucky enough to be at the unveiling of This Year’s Model—or call it This Decade’s Model, their first time on stage together since 2004. The show commenced with several minutes of roiling, pounding, searing jam (jump on in, the water’s fine!), then Neil swung to the mic, his voice layered atop the instrumental waves, the story beginning to be told:
Long ago in the book of old
Before the chapter where dreams unfold
A battle raged on the open page
Love was the winner there, overcoming hate
Like a little girl who couldn’t wait
Love and only love will endure….
Yowsa! What an opener! And on higher:
Spirit come back to me
Give me strength and set me free
Let me hear the magic in my heart
Love and only love will endure
Hate is everything you think it is
Love and only love will break it down
After settling us down just a mite with his enigmatic Powderfinger, a classic for any of us who’ve ever found ourselves in a bit over our heads (it’s the tale of a younger brother left home while dad and big bro were out and about, whose fate it was to futilely face down some mysterious gunship on the river), Neil then proceeded to toss a slew of brand new songs at us, each one a gem:
A stream-rounded chunk of white quartize (Ontario), a big ol’ bright shining diamond (Walk Like a Giant), a dark tourmaline (Every Morning Comes the Sun). And more! A new acoustic number about how it felt when he first heard Dylan ask us from the radio: “how does it feel?” The first live re-emergence of an old studio outtake that poignantly shares his questions and uncertainty after the birth of Ben, his second son born with cerebral palsy:
Down the dusty road to the forest church
Let me wander there, let me wonder why
On the ocean wave, in the billowing sky
Let me wander there, let me wonder why
Let the angels ring the bells in the holy hall
May they hear the voice that calls to them
For the love of man, who will understand?
But it’s alright, I know it’s alright
(Today’s Googlicious discovery: Ben has grown into an egg farmer, with 250 hens named Georgette and a clientele of Bay Area eateries)
One of the open secrets of the past couple decades is that Neil, who penned some of the most unflinching portraits of the dark sides of the sixties and their aftermath – with gentle sadness, as in Needle and the Damage Done, and with harsh glares, as in Hippie Dream (ouch!) – has gone on to write a string of heartfelt reflections and rousing anthems that amount to the most unapologetic continuing celebration of those old ideals to come from any artist of the era. His body of work has woven a mighty carpet of strong threads: believing in the vision of a better world while facing the ways we fall short, and fleshing out the emotional landscapes we all face when dealing with our societal, relational, and personal demons.
This deep storytelling – I call it mythic with full awareness of what that means – has continued unabated right on through the decades, especially since 1990’s Ragged Glory (perhaps the fullest distillation of this core thread, featuring Love and Only Love, as well as Country Home, Mansion on the Hill, Days that Used to Be, and Mother Earth/Natural Anthem, the latter of which began a occasional tradition of album-ending odes to the earth). I’m not saying everything he puts out is mythic, or even all that listenable sometimes! Neil’s not shy about sharing whatever strikes his fancy, and there’s plenty of chaff creating the space within which those golden kernels of wheat swell and burst. But I am saying that he’s mined a rich vein of heart, vision, compassion, and spirit (along with confusion and anguish) and that his body of work contains a story of our generation that is unparalleled.
Two of the new songs continue this story in grand fashion. The anthemic Walk Like a Giant is at once tragic and celebratory, recalling how close we came to changing the world, memorializing the near-miss while proclaiming that’s not enough, and holding those heights as a continuing beacon for our ongoing societal journey. Moving closer to home is a song of love that can be read a few different ways; the verses varied greatly in how they set up the cryptic chorus (which alternates between “he” and “she”): “He loves her so, he does what he has to/he loves her so he does what he needs to.” An acknowledgement of the mutual commitment and sacrifice of making a marriage work…a heart that realizes it’s time to walk away from a fractured love….a relationship big enough to allow both to live fully into their own lives while honoring their shared ground….On first blush, its seemed to be any and all of these. A deep immersion into the dynamics of relationship, ala the gem Change Your Mind from the overlooked mid-90s album Sleeps With Angels.
OK. All this waxing profound is getting to be a bit much. Electric Neil, riding this Crazy Horse current, is really all about the visceral immersion in the sound. And what a sound it is!
It’s loud. Relentlessly loud. It’s simple. Ridiculously simple. And in its simplicity is a clarity – each of the four voices (or five when vocals are added) distinct and locked in with the others. And in the loudness is an invitation – immerse yourself, be carried, feel this! I kept hearing it as a tunnel of sound we can enter, Poncho Sampedro’s rhythm guitar and Billy Talbot’s bass blending into a surprisingly soothing space around which Neil’s leads can slice and sear the air, while Ralph Molina weaves the drumbeats that tie it all together.
This ride isn’t for everyone. It sure is a long way from the Heart of Gold/Harvest Moon/Helpless vibe. But for those who aren’t put off by the external bombast, who can find their way inside the sonic space these four create….well, there’s really nothing else like it in the world of music. I’m not saying it’s better than other music, or that it’s my favorite music, just that it’s an utterly unique blend of intensity and clarity and longing. I was reminded of a saying coined by Bill Graham about a very different band, but the shoe fits here, too: “They’re not just the best at what they do; they’re the only ones that do what they do!”
It’s been over forty years now that these guys have been brewing their singular stew, churning, grinding, searching, touching, reaching—for both the heights of the heart and spirit and the depths of inner rage and despair. But not a forty-year slog cycling through arenas every year or two. No! Forty-four off-and-on years, each time maybe the last, each round fresh and exciting because it’s been awhile since they had a chance to do this THING that they do together.
They’re all in their sixties now, and you know by this time they’d either be crusty shells of their former selves or have found their ways to some variation on a more temperate and grounded approach to reaching the good ol’ fierce intensity. Though it has a nice ring to it, the choice doesn’t really have to come down to burning out or fading away….the best choice of all is maintaining the passion, the striving, the love, the vision, the engagement, the downright ecstatic embrace of life in all its glory and sorrow. Clear eyes, full hearts.
Who’d’athunk’it? Crazy Horse and Coach Taylor are on the same road! Catch ’em while you can. They’re rambling ’round the US and Canada from now through November, first with Los Lobos, then with Patti Smith (!) for the last week or so back east.
I’m really reticent to post videos, because SO much depends on the actual, palpable sea of sound; it really is something that only opens up when it’s live. For starters, the bass and rhythm guitar seem way muted in audience recordings. But anyway, here’s the best online taste I’ve found, from the encore at Red Rocks on Sunday:
And a listen to Walk Like a Giant from Monday, which really is WAY more impactful live, I promise you! (Pancho sure seemed a lot more engaged on Friday; I hope this number, where he perks up for a few minutes about 12 minutes in, is an aberation…)
Oh yeah. While this tour, the same each night so far except the encores, is all about lacing together a few classics (including Hey Hey My My, Cinnamon Girl, and Mr. Soul) with the previously unheard material that’s rumored to be in the can for the next album, there’s actually a new release out now, Americana, featuring classics like Oh, Susanna, Clementine, This Land is Your Land, Wayfaring Stranger, and a mashup of verses from an old folk song about the second coming called Jesus’ Chariot that’s best known as She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain. So far, this one’s been part of the encore in alternating shows….replete with sacrificial roosters and aiming for the portal!