“So, welcome back, welcome back
It’s not the same
The shade is just you blinking”
– Neil Young & Crazy Horse, “Welcome Back”
I’ve never been one who is known for his Christmas spirit. At one point, some might have even called me a “Grinch.” I like to think I’ve gotten better about it since the Rock Chick, er “Mrs. Claus,” came along. I’ll tell you one thing, there’s nothing that makes me feel better and perhaps more festive than a great rock and roll band like Neil Young and Crazy Horse putting out an amazing new album, Barn. It’s all I’ve been listening to this week and let me say, Neil is on a roll.
It’s amazing to think that Neil first recorded an album with Crazy Horse – Danny Whitten, guitar; Ralph Molina, drums; and Billy Talbot, bass – in 1969. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was a complete change of direction from Neil Young’s solo debut the Buffalo Springfield-ish Neil Young. It had his first real hit, the great riff-rock tune “Cinnamon Girl.” The album featured a couple of Neil’s most famous, long guitar work outs. “Down By The River” was over 9 minutes long. “Cowgirl In The Sand” was over 10. I think that album was the one that has always made me feel in my gut when I see Crazy Horse, there’s gonna be some loud guitar. When I was exiled to Arkansas after college, I used to play the title track, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” at top volume. Man, I hated it there… met some great people though.
Rather than follow up the successful Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with another album with Crazy Horse, Neil joined Crosby Stills and Nash (creatively renamed Crosby Stills Nash and Young) for Deja Vu. Neil has followed his muse where ever it has taken him in terms of collaborations. The CSNY thing didn’t last, in terms of recording albums together anyway, and Neil was soon doing solo albums. For his next solo record, After The Gold Rush Neil still used members of Crazy Horse (although it was not a Crazy Horse LP) and he brought in a hot shot young guitarist Nils Lofgren who he promptly had play…piano. Neil would continue on with his solo career without doing anything formal with Crazy Horse for several years. On their own, Crazy Horse did put out a great debut LP, Crazy Horse. I think part of the reason Neil didn’t reunite with Crazy Horse during that period was Danny Whitten’s decline into addiction. In 1972 Whitten became a drug casualty and it fueled some of Neil’s darkest work.
It wasn’t until 1975’s Zuma that we saw an official “Neil Young & Crazy Horse” LP from these guys. By then they’d replaced Whitten with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar. I don’t think they could have found a more perfect replacement for Whitten, in terms of his chemistry on guitar with Neil. Neil said he hired Poncho because he had really killer weed which seems to be a good reason to hire a guy in a band. They continued that guitar “workout” tradition with songs like “Cortez the Killer.” Young always said he just played better guitar with Crazy Horse. “Like A Hurricane” certainly springs to mind as an example…
Neil would continue to work with Crazy Horse off and on through the early 80s. He’d do an album with them, then off to the Stills-Young Band, then back to Crazy Horse, then a completely solo thing. He stopped working with them for a while in the mid-80s, his creative nadir. It’s perhaps no coincidence that he’d hit his low point because he’d gotten away from that Crazy Horse base. Finally in 1987 he did reunite with Crazy Horse for Life, which should have made my list, B&V’s True Confessions: The Dirty Dozen – 12 Albums That Only I Love… Time to Re-Evaluate?. It wasn’t until 1990’s masterwork Ragged Glory that Neil rediscovered the power and the glory of Crazy Horse. Everyone should own that album. From then on he’d work with Crazy Horse about like he did in the 70s, he’d bring them in every other album.
But then after 2003’s Greendale (a tour I mistakenly took the Rock Chick to) Neil and Crazy Horse drifted apart again. The theatrical nature of that Greendale show was not the concert to try and turn a person on to Neil Young but I digress. It wasn’t until 2012 that we’d see another Young LP featuring Crazy Horse. To make up for lost time they put out two LPs that year, Americana and then Psychedelic Pill. There are many who complain that Psychedelic Pill suffered from Young’s inability to edit and many lament the loss of his long time producer David Briggs who could have curbed Neil’s proclivity for long songs, but I loved it. “Driftin’ Back” was almost a half an hour. The Grateful Dead would envy that guitar jam. “Ramada Inn” and “Walk Like A Giant” were both over 16 minutes long. If you like squalling, loud guitar jams, I’ve got your LP for you.
After Psychedelic Pill, it seemed it might be over for Crazy Horse. Neil started doing albums and tours with the Promise of the Real guys. Sampedro actually up and retired. I sort of drifted away from Neil’s new music and started focusing on his archives. But just when I thought it was over, Nils Lofgren to the rescue. In 2019 Neil pulled Crazy Horse back together. Joining Neil, Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums) would be erstwhile sidekick Nils Lofgren on guitar and yes, piano. Nils had some time off from his gig as Springsteen’s E-Street Band’s “most over qualified second guitarist.” The resulting LP, Colorado was the first new Young music that I connected with since, well, Psychedelic Pill. I called that album a good Neil Young album but maybe not a great one. Having gone back and listened to the whole thing this week, I think I was too reserved. It’s a great record.
For the first time, maybe ever, Neil has returned to working with Crazy Horse for a second album in a row, the new Barn. This is a really great album. I expected some real guitar fireworks between Neil and Nils when they did Colorado, and there was some of that, but I think Nils helps bring more structure to Crazy Horse than Sampedro did. He plays piano and even accordion and provides Neil with the perfect backdrop instead of that old jam until we get tired ethos. As was the case with Colorado, the topic foremost on Neil’s mind is the environment and the climate crisis we all face. Some might say he’s becoming more strident, but I think of it as Young being more urgent in his songwriting as the situation merits it. He also sprinkles in love songs to show there is hope. Neil’s nickname, for his vocal delivery has always been Shakey. I think at this stage you could change that to Craggy but as I said on the last LP, if you’re complaining about Neil’s voice at this stage you’re probably not a fan anyway.
While guitar jams are what you think of with Crazy Horse, the LP opens with the first single, the beautiful acoustic hymn for the environment “Song of the Seasons.” I love that Nils plays accordion on this song. Although it’s been said that the definition of a gentleman is a person who knows how to play accordion but chooses not to… I reviewed that song when it came out, see the link above, so I won’t go into it. “They Must Be Lost” is another great acoustic track with that signature Neil harmonica. There are a couple of great country-rock vibe tracks that I dug. “Shape of You” is the first of those and it has a rolling, lilt to it. It’s a groovy love song. “Tumblin’ Through The Years” mines that same field and may be one of my favorite tracks. I may have to include some of this on my “Rockers Going Country” playlist.
I love that acoustic, country rock style stuff, but fear not there is plenty of rock n roll guitar here. “Heading West” is a great riff rock travelogue song. I can feel the movement west in the song. It feels like you’re riding in a car or a train. “Change Ain’t Never Gonna” is a great State of the Union protest song. Nils plays a barrel house piano on that one. “Canerican” is Neil’s personal statement and is a very garage rock style song. “Human Race” is my favorite of the harder rocking songs. It’s all squalling guitars and ominous warnings about the climate. “The human race is run…” The centerpiece of this album, for me, is the song quoted above, “Welcome Back.” It’s a 8 and half minutes long. It’s Neil squealing out guitar notes over sparse backing. It has that haunted feeling that tracks on Tonight’s The Night had. Neil sings in a lower register, like a man who is delivering bad news. It’s a gripping, epic tune and that guitar raises goosebumps on my arms. It’s like Cassandra on the beach, issuing a warning that is ignored.
The album ends with “Don’t Forget Love,” a hopeful note. It’s like a message to remember as you’re around family for Xmas and your older relative mutters something fascist, or your hippy college cousin utters something socialist, rather than get mad, remember that we’re all family and we all love each other…or we used to anyway. It may sound a little 60s in attitude, but maybe we could all use a little of that these days.
Barn is simply put, one of the best records of 2021. I highly recommend everyone checks this one out. It’s the kind of LP that B&V was founded to extol. I hope everybody has a great holiday season – whatever holiday you choose to celebrate, or bemoan in my case. It’ll be another quiet one here at B&V but I get to see my daughter for a few days and that makes everything better.
Happy Holidays and as always, Cheers! (If you’re celebrating, remember, don’t drink and drive folks. Even I follow that rule).