When I heard that Neil Young was reuniting with Crazy Horse to record an album, I’ll admit, I got excited. It was the most interest I’ve had in something new from Neil since, well, his last album with Crazy Horse, the epic Psychedelic Pill in 2012. When I heard that Nils Lofgren was going to be stepping in as the other guitarist I was doubly excited. Nils first played with Neil on After the Gold Rush, although for reasons unclear Neil had the then 17-year old guitarist play piano instead of his chosen instrument. This was clearly a reunion and album to be excited about. While I’m sure those Promise of the Real kids who have been playing with Neil of late (they’re Willie Nelson’s sons) are great guys, they ain’t Crazy Horse.
I have to admit up front, it wasn’t until college that I got into Neil Young. My college roommate Drew was into Young and I ended up buying the three-album greatest hits package, Decade (a huge investment in those days). That purchase led me to a lifetime appreciation of Neil Young and the great music he’s put out. Neil is a bit like Clapton in that he’s played with a lot of different bands. He started with Stephen Stills in Buffalo Springfield, went solo, recruited Crazy Horse as a backing band, joined Crosby Stills Nash, put together another back-up band called the Stray Gators and then went solo again. He even briefly joined Stills’ band for one album as the Stills-Young Band, Long May You Run. The grass doesn’t grow under Neil’s feet.
I was in a bar recently (shocking) and someone asked me if Crazy Horse was Neil’s version of Wings, McCartney’s backing band from the 70s. “Christ no,” I exclaimed with perhaps a bit too much passion. Who else is going to teach the children about rock and roll? Crazy Horse, or more accurately the musicians who make up Crazy Horse, began as an L.A. band known as the Rockets. After the mixed reaction to his first solo album, post-Buffalo Springfield, and after jamming with the Rockets, Neil recruited members Danny Whitten (guitar/vocals), Ralph Molina (drums) and Billy Talbot (bass) to back him on his second album, the jammy Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. He renamed them, Crazy Horse. There were other members of the Rockets who I guess didn’t seem to realize that Neil had coopted the band, but with a song entitled “Running Dry (Requiem For the Rockets)” you can’t say he didn’t warn them.
They toured to support the album and the guitar solo’ing was epic. I advise everyone to check out Live At the Fillmore East from Neil’s archive series as documented proof. But then Neil jumped into CSNY. On his next solo album, After The Gold Rush, Young kind of combined Crazy Horse and the CSNY backing band. Greg Reeves played bass (from CSNY) with Ralph Molina on drums (from Crazy Horse). Throw in Lofgren on piano and you’ve got Neil’s first masterpiece. It couldn’t have been more different than the long, extended jams on Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere. That album had long, guitar workouts like “Cowgirl In the Sand” and “Down By the River.” Gold Rush had the epic “Southern Man” but it was mostly acoustic/piano ballads.
After that Young recorded Harvest and suddenly our idiosyncratic singer/songwriter was a Superstar. His subsequent record, Time Fades Away (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP), was seen as a repudiation of that superstardom. During the rehearsals for that tour, Young was trying to enlist Danny Whitten from Crazy Horse to play second guitar, but Whitten was struggling too much with heroin addiction. Neil eventually had to fire Whitten, who was found dead later that night of a valium/alcohol mix that has claimed so many.
Despite that, Neil carried on with Crazy Horse on Tonight’s the Night. Nils stepped in on guitar. Jack Nitzsche joined on piano. And really, Neil has been playing with Crazy Horse, off and on, ever since. There have been various members over the year, but the guys who played with Young the most were Molina, Talbot, and guitarist Frank Sampedro, who Young supposedly hired because he had good weed. Regardless of why he hired Sampedro, he’s been one of Neil’s greatest guitar foils over the years. The chemistry those guys have is amazing. These four guys have put out some amazing albums over the years: Ragged Glory (a must-have, classic from 1990), Sleeps With Angels (94), and their last outing, 2012’s Psychedelic Pill.
I loved Psychedelic Pill. I remember seeing Neil interviewed around that time and he said something like, “I just play better guitar with Crazy Horse.” I give credit to Sampedro. The songs on Psychedelic Pill evolved out of long, extended jams. There are three songs that run, 27:36, 16:49 and 16:27 respectively. Damn. Listening to those long guitar workouts evokes listening to classical music as much as rock and roll… well classical music played by really loud instruments. When I heard that Sampedro had retired, I wondered if that was the end of Crazy Horse… Enter Nils Lofgren, guitar virtuoso. I thought, well this album is going to be another jamming, guitar-fest. As with everything with Neil, I was in for a surprise.
Colorado, the new Neil Young and Crazy Horse album isn’t anything at all like Psychedelic Pill. This is, for the most part, a collection of tight songs, with only one long jam. The tracks run from 2:45 to around 6 minutes, save for “She Showed Me Love,” which runs over 13 minutes. The album was recorded up in the mountains, in Colorado, hence the name. Molina, Talbot and Neil Young are, as mentioned joined by Nils Lofgren on guitar, piano and vocals. I’ll admit again, this album was nothing of what I expected. It’s muted and somewhat somber. The theme is pretty obvious – Neil has turned his concerns to the environment (long a concern of his) and climate change. I don’t hear any current bands taking up the mantle of writing protest songs so it’s left up to the man who wrote the greatest protest song ever, “Ohio,” to step up and do it. Nobody else is writing lines like, “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own…” And folks, we are definitely on our own when it comes to climate change.
I’ll be the first to tell you this album is no masterpiece. But I’ll say it’s a strong Neil Young and Crazy Horse album. It’s the strongest thing he’s done since their last outing. I’m not trying to knock Promise of the Real, and I hear they’re great live, but I just haven’t connected with any of Neil’s work with them. Like Joe Strummer once said, and I’m obviously fond of repeating, “Never underestimate the chemistry of four guys in a room.”
The first track I heard on XM Radio in my car was “Rainbow of Colors.” Like most of the reactions I’ve seen, I did not react well. It comes off as an anthem, much like “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” from Ragged Glory. It comes off as more of a hymn than a song. I have to suspect that played live with people singing along, it’s much more effective. It’s really the only song on here that I would call a “clunker.” Neil’s voice has aged and it creaks a bit here and there, but if you’re complaining about Neil’s vocals at this stage in the game, you’re probably on the wrong train.
The best moments on this album are the acoustic ones. “Think of Me” is the opener, and it’s an upbeat acoustic track that competes for the best track on the album. The other track that I think is a standout is “Green Is Blue” a heartfelt ballad which serves as requiem for the environment. Those two tracks are worth the price of admission here. “Milky Way” is an acoustic-based love song and it’s another great track. Album closer “I Do” is another affecting, stripped-down, quiet ballad and is a perfect end. I like “Eternity” until the backing vocals start singing “clickety-clack” to sound like a train. We get it from the drums, it’s about a train. “Olden Days” is a great mid tempo thing led by Neil’s guitar while he sings about seeing an old friend (or perhaps a lover).
The rocking songs are bit of a mixed bag. “She Showed Me Love” is the 13-minute epic. The she of the title is, of course, Mother Nature. I can’t tell if lines like “I saw Mother Nature pushing Earth in a baby carriage” are Neil joking about how old he is, or just awkward. The guitar work stretches the tune and makes it interesting to me. “Help Me Lose My Mind” is a track that sounds like a grunge rocker from the 90s, something Nirvana might have done. I like the line from that one, “I have to get a new television…to make the sky look like the Earth is flat.” “Shut It Down” is a glorious noise, it almost sounds like Punk rock. Neil sings that track with an urgency.
Again, this album is not a Neil Young & Crazy Horse masterpiece, but it’s a damn good album from these guys. Fifty years removed from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, its nice to see Neil turn back to Crazy Horse and record such a strong record. The chemistry between them and with Nils is still something to behold.
And lets face it, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to “shut the whole system” down every now and again…