Neil Young and Crazy Horse at Waldbühne, Berlin
By Sascha Krieger
Neil Young’s place in the history of rock music will always be connected to his collaboration with his longest lasting backing band which has always been much more than that. Crazy Horse may be to Young what The Band was to Bob Dylan but while they’re efforts without the singer may not be on par with The Band’s musical output, their role for Young’s oeuvre was even greater. Their combination of long, meandering, guitar heavy sound landscapes for which the singing often was little more than a structuring element, their revolutionarily edgy sound, their use of distortion, setting the stage for Young’s own guitar play which would know no limits, no barriers, no impossibilities opened new ground for rock’n roll and would point to the rougher, less polished, more in-your-face and more uncompromising varieties of rock music: punk and particularly grunge. Their „revival“ at the height of the latter movement was as deserved as it was logical.
Having said this, their first European tour in about ten years kicked off in surprising fashion: with a concert that lacked edge, that sometimes faded into better background music, that lacked all the edge one would consider typical for this combination. The 2013 incarnation of Neil Young and Crazy Horse – consisting of original members Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums) as well as guitarist Frank Sampedro who in 1975 replaced founding member Danny Whitten after he had died of an overdose – sounds like a very well-oiled machine who appear to know at all times exactly what they are doing. But whereas this may be very good news for most bands, for Crazy Horse it means that something is missing.
It is not as if they don’t enjoy playing together, they obviously do. Especially Sampedro grins broadly and jumps around like a little kid. The result, however, is a little too clean. The long guitar solos lack the daring this band and especially Neil Young himself became famous for (most clearly on Like a Hurricane, their only encore). Almost every song ends in the same way: with a long, mildly cacophonous jam that only feels spontaneous and edgy the first three or four times. Particularly bad is the choice of Young’s short acoustic guitar set: Heart of Gold simply suits the purpose of making the occasional fan happy and his rendition of Dylan‘s Blowin‘ in the Wind hast he blandness of a better karaoke version. When the next song, Singer without a Song, is illustrated by the appearance of a young woman carrying a guitar case, wandering aimlessly around the stage, things border on the ridiculous.
Another problem at their tour opener in Berlin is the heavy role new songs, especially those from their latest album Psychedelic Pill, play in their concert. They work better as a whole on the record than as single songs in concert. Long and meandering as many of their classic songs, they mostly lack the bursts of energy, the surprising twists and turns and the uncompromising nature of the sound explorations that characterizes many of their previous efforts.
So the highlights belong to the old stuff: Powderfinger, long their signature song, still has an almost painful hardness in all its sing-along grandeur, Mr. Soul has so much power that one is happy the open air amphitheater has no roof and Hey hey, My My still makes very clear why Young is still a hero to many much heavier rock bands. Cinnamon Girl drops of a little but still suggests what a gamechanger their first album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was when it was released in 1969. Still, Young, a frequent visitor to Berlin in recent years, has played more surprising, musically more complex and ultimately better concerts in recent years. There is a clear sense of perfection which does not suit this band too well. Ironically, their support act on this tour, Los Lobos, seem to have a similar problem. Having said this, this does not mean that Neil Young and Crazy Horse are not still one oft he most exciting rock’n roll acts around and that it isn’t worth paying a substantial amount of money to see them. They are and it is.