In his review of 1991 live Crazy Horse album Weld, Robert Christgau, the so-called “dean of rock critics,” warned that we dare not forget that there was no “live-er rock and roller than Mr. Time Fades Away.”
His reference was to Neil Percival Young. It is 2012. There is still no live-er rock and roller than Mr. Time Fades Away, no disrespect to Jack White, Pearl Jam, Dave Grohl, Arcade Fire or anyone else.
At Air Canada Centre, well into the Canadian leg of his current Alchemy Tour to support the new album Psychedelic Pill, Young was potent and tall – at times a one-man perfect storm of grunge guitar. He rocked fiercely, thoughtfully and with a locked and loaded black Les Paul. He rode horses that were not crazy, but just untamed enough. The concert did not have the sense of occasion that accompanied his Massey Hall shows (in 2007 and 2011), but the reunion with the workman plod-and-groove rhythm team of Crazy Horse (bassist Billy Talbot, drummer Ralph Molina and guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro ) was the event of the week, if not the season.
I say the event of week because when Young performed Twisted Road solo on his acoustic guitar, he referenced Bob Dylan, the troubadour who played the same venue five days prior: “First time I heard Like A Rolling Stone, I felt that magic and took it home, gave it a twist and made it mine.” But where Dylan’s concert was self-indulgent anti-show, Young’s two-hour performance was staged with big props and quirky flair. Giant video screens were done up as vintage portable TVs. Phony Fender amplifier cabinets were humungous and the majestic microphone stand in front was totem-like. Flustered lab-coated scientists were a hoot, directing the roadies and such with no precision but much animation.
And Young can still play his instrument. And sing. Dylan croaked about how it felt to be alone; Young had with him a simpatico posse. Dylan mumbled something about a last meal; Young still looks hungry. Dylan gave his audience his weird “this,” when they’d paid for “that.”
The night had begun with local group the Sadies, whose tidy set of purple-hazed Americana included a walk-on appearance from former Guess Who guitarist Randy Bachman, who helped out on the classic No Time. Los Lobos followed with heavy East L.A. swing.
The Crazy Horse set began with a tape of the Beatles’ Day in a Life, an epic which Young memorably performed on his last visit to the venue. “Somebody spoke and I went into a dream” was a suitable introduction, because the shambolic, sprawling Psychedelic Pill (an album better on stage than on the stereo), often finds Young looking back in Sixties-soaked reverie.
First song proper (after a well-received, flag-unfurling O Canada) was Love and Only Love, an elongated anthem from 1990’s Ragged Glory, with lines such as “tomorrow is a long, long time if you’re a memory trying to find peace of mind.”
The new Walk Like a Giant was a grungy lament to something not quite achieved, with Young wishing to tread big with the desire and vision of on idealistic era long passed. It ended with a long storm of feedback – the dying, huge groans of an electric elephant.
The Needle and the Damage Done, part of the show’s acoustic middle, saw Young’s spot-lit shadow set against an amplifier cabinet, ala Jimi Hendrix. The needle that “took another man” referred to former Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten (1943-72).
The knockdown finale (before the encore, Helpless) was the “hey-hey, my-my” story of Johnny Rotten and a rust that never sleeps. “The king is gone,” Young sang. There are many who would disagree.
Hits: The opening O Canada, the unreleased, harmony-sung country-piano ballad Singer Without a Song (complete with a song-less, guitar-case-carrying young woman wandering on stage) and an extended workout of a Ragged Glory rocker from 1990 about “keys left in a swinging door” and screwing up habitually.
Misses: The encore, Helpless, was refashioned as choogling rural-rock, awkwardly.
Crowd: Concert T-shirt wearing veterans and first-timer Neil newbies, and plaid-shirt grunge monkeys and thunder-storm guitar junkies.
Overheard: “Omemee!” One of the 18,000 in attendance yelled out the name of the town in central Ontario in which Neil Young was raised, and where he still finds “dream comfort to spare.”
In a word: Like a “hurricane.”
Neil Young and Crazy Horse play Kitchener, Ont., Nov. 20; Montreal, Nov. 23; Ottawa, Nov. 24.