That Neil Young plays ‘Comes a Time’ tonight adds an even greater poignancy to what is an already emotional occasion. Reunited with Crazy Horse for the first time in more than a decade, his long-time guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro had recently indicated that the current tour – the Alchemy Tour which has already circumnavigated the globe from North America to Australasia and is now on its European and Scandinavian legs, scheduled to finish at London’s O2 Arena in August – may well be the last that they all perform together. “You can’t fool time” says Sampedro, recognising that at 64 years of age he may well be three years Young’s junior but given all of their advancing years (original band members Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot will both be 70 next time round) and the consequent ravages of time, much as they clearly would want to on tonight’s evidence they cannot go on forever.
Stretched over an intermittent, 45 year association, it is with Crazy Horse that Neil Young’s heart invariably beats as one. From Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere in 1968 (represented tonight by a mercurial ‘Cinnamon Girl’ which defies age and reason) to last year’s reunion album and marked return to form Psychedelic Pill (three songs from which are untethered here, including the two epics, ‘Walk Like A Giant and ‘Ramada Inn’), Crazy Horse have provided Young with the measure of familiarity and safety that enables him to produce what has consistently been his best work.
From a rather surreal opening sequence, where to the rousing strains of first The Beatles’ ‘Day In The Life’ and then once Young and Crazy Horse have appeared on stage, God Save The Queen, a handful of white-coated boffins scuttle back and forth urging a couple of hard-hatted construction workers to operate the pulleys that will remove the enormous packing cases from over some equally outsized faux-Fender deluxe amps, to a truly incendiary encore of ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’, everything about this show is monumentally huge. Clocking in at 150 minutes in length it is the soundtrack to both Young’s and most of the audience’s lives, signposting as it does his career from Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr Soul’ to the present day – including two songs that are still as yet unreleased, ‘Hole In The Sky’ and ‘Singer Without A Song’ – and featuring his, and quite probably our, preoccupation with the ageing process.
After a colossal opening salvo of ‘Love and Only Love’, ‘Powderfinger’, and Psychedelic Pill’s title track, the beast that is Neil Young and Crazy Horse truly hits its considerable stride with ‘Walk Like A Giant’, the song’s whistled intro and Young’ wistful reflections upon the collapse of the hippie dream gentle counterpoints to the apocalyptic torrent of sound that is unleashed around them. As the song builds to its squalling feedback-drenched finale, with multiple images of Young as a younger man being spat out from the screens either side of the stage, he and Sampedro face each other centre stage like gigantic behemoths their guitars locked in mortal combat. Woodstock’s ‘Rain Chant’ offers blessed relief from the song’s very own Armageddon and provides us with a bridge across which we can gently walk into the wooden section of the set.
Lying therein are the two previously unreleased songs, ‘Hole in the Sky’ and ‘Singer Without A Song’, the latter with Young on piano and the most perfect of partners for Time Fades Away’s exquisite ‘Love In Mind’, a beautifully tender ‘Comes A Time’ and a faithful though largely unnecessary reading of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.
This quartet of songs provides some shelter from the perfect storm that then follows. ‘Ramada Inn’ could be the ideal metaphor for Young and his backing band. With its reminiscences of a long-married couple, it acknowledges the changes in their relationship whilst holding dear the continuing deep love and respect they still have for each other. The vicissitudes in their union are acted out over the most magnificent melody Young has written in years. As the song reaches for its middle crescendo Young coaxes a death-defying solo out of Old Black before he joins Sampedro and Talbot in front of Ralph Molina’s drum riser, the three men bobbing and weaving in a virtually imperfect harmony that signifies their complete and utter strength in unity. It is one of those rare transcendental moments in live music, one that you may well be fortunate enough to experience on only a handful of occasions in your entire lifetime.
By this time the performance has moved into a different stratosphere, an altogether higher plane of experience, as Neil Young and Crazy Horse plot a zigzagged map across both his and their formidable back pages from the still burning after all these years fires of ‘Mr Soul and ‘Cinnamon Girl’ to the more recently resuscitated Re-Ac-Tor album track ‘Surfer Joe and Moe The Sleaze’, before signing off with a life-affirming blast of ‘Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)’ and its now immortal lines of “it’s better to burn out, ’cause rust never sleeps, the king is gone, but he’s not forgotten”. Fortunately this king has not yet gone, and you sense that he will never be forgotten. But time is running out for us all and you would be well advised to catch him and what is the world’s greatest backing band whilst you still can.