Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Second Great LP In A Row, ‘Barn’

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“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).

LP Review: ‘Colorado’ the Return of Neil Young & Crazy Horse With Nils Lofgren!

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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…