174. Walk Like A Giant: Neil Young and Crazy Horse with Patti Smith, Scotiabank Place, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Saturday November 24, 2012, $73.11.
You can never be sure which iteration of “Neil Young” you’re going to get when you see him live — or which segments of his fanbase will predominate at a given show. This was my sixth time seeing Neil in four decades and most of those gigs have certainly been distinct from one another, with sometimes decidedly different patrons at the fore.
Artists of many stripes tend to attract a particular type of audience usually owing to working within a specific genre, while Neil’s covers a pretty diverse base. Like The Beatles, David Bowie, or Joni Mitchell, he’s had major commercial success with sometimes highly accessible music yet is a true artist and risk-taker, meaning that factions of his fanbase may focus more specifically on a particular style, era, genre or approach that Neil has taken with his music-making. My Neil Young may not be your Neil Young.
Below is a table that I’ve created representing the poles of Neil’s fandom. Perhaps you can self-identify as to which column you bell most closely to.
(Chart by VA)
For those “Column A” fans, tonight was so not the night for you. This was very much a Crazy Horse-focussed affair, with Neil and the band at their most expansive, jammy, daring, and experimental: a unit of the post-Sonic Youth wall-shreds feedback variety. His catalogue touchstones for this evening were not only the recent double disc Pyschedelic Pill but also Ragged Glory, the live Weld, Side Two of Rust Never Sleeps, and, in spirit if not actual tunes, Tonight’s the Night and Sleeps With Angels.
While the set got deservedly rave reviews in the local press, there’s apparently been some grumbling among the homegrown Column A-ers that this night was a little too out there. I am not one of them. While I like a broad spectrum of Neil’s stuff, I unabashedly swing toward Column B. As with many things, I tend towards the dark stuff. It’s just who and how I am.
I also had no complaints about this being a dream double bill for me, featuring two icons on the same stage that I hold in high regard, as the equally brilliant, visionary Patti Smith and her band were the openers. Throughout my years of attending Neil’s shows, he has consistently had some of the very best opening acts of any headliner I’ve regularly gone out for. In the past, Sonic Youth, Oasis, & Wilco — three artists I am also a major fan of, having seen each more than once and usually in a headlining capacity — have been the support act at a Neil concert I’ve attended. Talk about having good taste, not to mention giving fans value for money.
I have already written about an emotionally affecting performance by Patti that I took in during the summer of 1995: a Toronto show that officially re-started the second phase of her career. I hadn’t seen Patti since, and was pleased, to put it mildly, to learn that Ottawa was among a handful of gigs that she would be appearing at on this tour.
“Hi everybody! This is our first time in Ottawa and we’re really happy to be here,” enthused a smiling — and spitting — Ms. Smith, as she and her excellent band (including long-time Smith cohorts guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty as well as her son Jackson) issued the familiar strains of Wave’s “Dancing Barefoot.” Patti couldn’t have been in better spirits, coming down to crowd level during this opening number as well as it other points in the evening, waving and smiling to everyone with natural animation. It had been obvious to me earlier on that the more boho segment of Neil’s audience were out tonight, making me feel right at home, and clearly a chunk of those were here just as much to see Patti.
This was a very different Patti Smith than the one I saw onstage at the Phoenix in Toronto 17 years ago. At that time, she was taking her baby steps back out into the world of full-time performing, with a raw purity interwoven with vulnerability: part tentative, part tenacious. Skip ahead to now, and what we have here is a sharp, confident performer with an ineluctable presence who knows how to command a stage and audience as effortlessly as breathing. Even beyond those who were obviously present to see Patti, she received a warm, rapturous response that ascended as the set went from strength to strength.
It’s an interesting time to be seeing her given that she’s had career rebirth of sorts as of late. Patti of course launched the new decade with her justly celebrated memoir, the best-selling and National-Book-Award-winning Just Kids, which largely focussed on her struggling, pre-fame years in New York City with former lover, friend, and fellow artistic soldier, the late Robert Mapplethorpe. As a fan of memoirs, it ranks among the very best I’ve ever read.
Meanwhile, on the recording front, she spent the last few years staggering out the creation of her latest album, and one of her finest yet: Banga. Admittedly, I haven’t been overly enamoured of her post-Gone Again output, but Banga is a real return to form. That she spent the time crafting it just to get it right confirms that I’d rather have legacy acts take as long as they need to do great work rather than trundling out product on schedule simply to be in the marketplace more frequently. I’d rather have one Banga than five Trampin’s.
“April Fool” from Banga (2012)
Smith featured two tracks from the new disc in this evening’s set: its irresistibly hooky single, “April Fool,” which found her dancing around the stage during its break, and the shimmering “Fuji-San,” about the 2011 tsunami in Japan (“This is our prayer to Mother Nature … Be good to Mother Nature.”)
Patti’s glee on this night came not only from being up on the stage as an artist, but as a fan as well. “We’re just like you. We are as happy as you are to be seeing Neil Young and Crazy Horse tonight.” Later on, she raised her laminated I.D. card to the crowd, teasing “I’ve got a backstage pass” with a shit-eating grin.
“I’ve got a backstage pass!” Patti teases the crowd before launching into “Because the Night” at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa. This fan-shot You Tube video also includes Patti arriving on stage. Unfortunately, we missed first opening act, The Sadies.
I had hoped for a Neil/Patti duet that never came, assuming they might do “After the Gold Rush” together as she covers it on Banga (and it’s the only thing on there I don’t much like). I became hopeful when Pats talked about she and the band being “very excited, and want to do a little song of Neil’s — and Neil said it was okay.” Instead, we got a different kind of surprise in the form of a faithfully delivered version of the gentle “It’s A Dream,” one of the best tracks from 2005’s Prairie Wind.
A roadie helped apply a band aid to her hand (“Sorry, an old war wound”) as she strapped on an acoustic guitar before changing her mind. Flinging off the appendage (“Fuck it!”), Patti and the band slipped into the musical highlight of her time on the stage: a mesmerizing performance of Gone Again’s “Beneath the Southern Cross” which morphed into a four-guitar-strong acoustic/electric raga-style ringing drone. It was powerful and absorbing, receiving a particularly jumped-up crowd response in its wake.
A performance of “Beneath the Southern Cross,” similar to the version played at Scotiabank, recorded live on July 21, 2010 at Heineken Jazzaldia Festival (Playa de Zurriola) in San Sebastian, ES. (YouTube)
She closed out with three of her best known songs, prefacing “People Have the Power” by railing about how “so many forces are trying to fuck with us,” intoning us to “Unite!” and “Don’t forget to use your voice” (the audience used theirs to sing along with the chorus) before concluding with goosebump-inducing run-throughs of “Because the Night” and “Gloria.”
“Thank you! I had a great time,” came off as genuine sentiments, delivered by a beaming Patti as she and the gang exited the stage.
After all these years, Patti is still a performer who is energized and possessed in all the right ways. And while this was a real treat to see her, this brief set was woefully inadequate for this calibre of impassioned performing. Oh Patti, please come back and give us the full meal deal (you’d go over gangbusters at Bluesfest).
In the meantime, there is her follow-up to Just Kids to look forward to, her screenplay for the proposed bio-pic, and a gumshoe-genre fiction novel she’s discussed writing.
If you have an hour … a brilliant interview between Patti Smith and Neil Young from 2012, in tandem with the launch of his memoir, Waging Heavy Peace.
With Patti and company departed, it was just a wee time before the evening’s headliners appeared, with the back of the Scotiabank stage tricked out to look like an old TV test pattern from days of yore.
In advance of the Horse trotting out, it became apparent that Neil was invoking the Rust Never Sleeps tour via the oversized mike and amp stage props and The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” broadcasting through the speakers. Instead of the Roadeyes, however, this time we were treated to faux-mad scientist lab technicians and construction workers in their stead.
The enormous prop-mike was finally finagled into place with a symbolic hockey stick, all signifiers of the ultra-Canuck vibe (the Ottawa show marked the end of a series of Canadian dates) which reached its apex moments later as a massive Canadian flag was draped across the back of the stage as Neil & Crazy Horse emerged to the strains of “O Canada.” The entire arena erupted into a group singalong of our national anthem, including Neil — but not The Horse, as they didn’t know the words. The Canadian-specific touches played out a number of times throughout the night to enthusiastic responses, most notably the raised-fist huzzahs that later greeted Pill’s “Born in Ontario.”
Post-national anthem, the maple leaf gave way to the Crazy Horse backdrop as things kicked off with the epic, regal “Love and Only Love” from Ragged Glory. This proved to be an apt omen of the shape of things to come for the evening ahead: a lengthy, obscure Neil Young and Crazy Horse barnstormer in lieu of a more widely known and expected fave. That said, there were some of those too, as a familiar opening chord was up next, cueing another full-arena group-sing of “Look out Mama, there’s a white boat comin’ up the river,” with “Powderfinger” rolling out in earnest.
With the aforementioned “Ontario” up third, Neil and guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot, and drummer Ralph Molina next sunk their teeth into arguably Pill’s most experimental — and finest — track, “Walk Like A Giant.” Psychedelic Pill is easily the first album of new Neil Young material truly worthy of live inclusion in many a year (although the one true disappointment for me during this night was that nothing from Americana, the superlative, rocked-up-folk-covers album, was featured).
Even as part of an album packed with inspired yet far-from-immediate tracks (did I mention that it starts with 27 minutes of “Driftin’ Back”?), this clangorous, elongated and challenging 20-plus minutes rendition of my favourite PP track was a tough pill for the Column A’s to swallow. Its extended coda of long-reverberating, one-at-a-time gavel-pounding sonic slams redounded to audience polarities that played out as either “hypnotic” or “patience-testing,” depending on your aesthteic politics. Me, I loved ingesting every minute.
After simultaneously delighting/bewildering many, the Crazy Horse stage visual vamooshed, revealing a Woodstock backdrop with projected precipitation, twinned with the “No Rain” chant echoing through the P.A., eventually seguing into a rare acoustic moment as Neil re-appeared onstage to inject “The Needle and the Damage Done” into his set. Indeed, most of the Horse grazed in the backstage barn while Neil shifted gears for a tinitus-enducing-free acoustic/piano pause incorporating Pill’s “Twisted Road” and an all-new number, “Singer Without A Song,” replete with an unfortunate “dramatic” presentation.
Neil tickled the ivories, accompanied by Sampedro on acoustic guitar, singing about a creative whippersnapper of a young lady who is — just like it says on the tin — “a singer without a song … looking for the words behind the feeling,” as an earnest young lass with an acoustic guitar case and a peak cap wandered the stage looking ostensibly for said elusive tunes’n’text. Frankly, it came off more like a C-Cup model in boho drag meandering around in circles during the final stages of a post-Sominex stupor — a cracker-worthy moment of cheese and, for me, the only false note of the night. Before you could say “Judy Henske,” it was time to re-amp, re-arm, and plunge straight back into continued follicole swelling, uninterrupted guitar assaults for the set’s remainder via another lengthy jam with “Ramada Inn” and an excitedly received “Cinnamon Girl.”
Prior to the tour, Sampedro told Rolling Stone that he was of the opinion that this war horse should be laid to rest. But rather than receiving a glue factory fate, Poncho was vetoed, and this particular Phar Lap of a thoroughbred from the Neil/Horse catalogue once again left the gate, busting out to triumphantly gallop its one-note solo to victory at the Preakness Downs of the audience’s atingled discomposure.
Neil and ye olde crew seemed to be anything but phoning it in, exuding a true “Hey! We’re having fun!” vibe. “Thank you folks. Thank you for being here,” he had spake earlier in a heartfelt manner, while at this juncture of the performance he queried the crowd as to what it was that we wanted to hear … before pointedly ignoring all requests and piledriving into a 15-or-so-minute rendition of Glory’s “Fuckin’ Up,” performed at a slow, deliberate tempo, eventually turning into a mash-up with The Rolling Stones’ “Goin’ Home” (the song that played as exit music when I saw him back in 1989). He also lead the crowd through a jaunty sing-a-long of “Just a fuck up! Just a fuck up!” You won’t be getting that at a Dave Matthews Band show.
If you have 15 minutes … a fan-shot YouTube video from Scotiabank, with Neil and the Horse raging through “Fuckin’ Up” (and the Rolling Stones’ “Goin’ Home”). We were about 100 feet from the front of the stage.
It was “red meat” time once again with a sublime “Cortez the Killer” wherein a young couple in front of us inexplicably started slow dancing at one point — surely a first of a reaction for this number — before pulling out “Mr. Soul” from his retro bag of tricks. This Buffalo Springfield gem segued into a wash of kinetic feedback as a side route to the “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” destination, followed by the encore and cool-down selection, “Roll Another Number For the Road.” Some concurred with the directive, while some simply sang along.
“Thank you Horse. Thank you Ottawa. Thank you Canada for a great tour,” as Neil and Le Cheval Fou assembled at the front of the stage for an elongated line-hug complete with a high kicking Can Can. Oi — steady on, lads!
“Ramada Inn,” video from Psychedelic Pill.
I was utterly drained in the afterglow, and while plenty shared my postcoital-esque feelings of adrenailine-cyphoned release, not everyone saw Neil’s aggressively satisfying crowd-fuck quite the same way.
As the lights came up, a classic-rock-station-enabled teenage suburban mall princess in front of me declared via a porridge-thick face of incredulity, “Are you freakin’ kidding me?! He only did, like, three songs I know!!” She flashed a disgruntled “someone stole my iPhone!”-style smunch-faced, slack-jawed gait of horror, with her turned-up, distended nostrils flared in repugnance as if she’d just whiffed a dump (sorry, darling, but that was the crystal meth that the crowd of slam-dancing urchins in front of us were chain-smoking throughout the set). Imagine a proper ornery, blonde-haired, 17-year-old Alastair Sim in drag and you’ll have an idea.
Seeing and hearing the righteous indignation of M’lady Mallratte was the cherry of joy on top of this evening for me.
It also got me to thinking afterwards: Neil did five FM-staples that even most casual Young fans would be familiar with (“Cinnamon Girl,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Cortez the Killer,” “Hey Hey My My,” and “Powderfinger”), so which two didn’t she know?
In some fairness to Mall Girlykins, one of the advantages to seeing a performer or group many times is that you get to experience that artist from multiple perspectives, at least with the good ones. So, perhaps if this had been the one and only Neil Young show I had ever seen, and I didn’t know my ass from my elbow, then perhaps I might’ve been disappointed that it wasn’t a more hit-laden set. Perhaps. But this wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, and so I just gorged on this celestially cacophonous banquet of nourishing indulgence.
It’s as simple as this: sometimes I just find harsh, noisy stuff highly appealing. While I know that plenty o’folks never like pummeling dissonance, I can’t comprehend why that is. For me, the right kind of grit, slashing and distortion are simply one of the many blood-pumping options available within the aural rainbow. It can have a transportive, spiritul effect. Cublet mentioned that he particularly liked and got lost in the long instrumental passages himself as well for those same reasons, and he’s far less of a noisy-positive guy than me. Then again, some people like eating the same meal almost every night too and can’t handle anything spicy, so there you go.
It’s great to see Neil every few years and check in on what he’s doing, and this time around two things came to mind for me:
1 – Who else among his peers is still this adventurous and restless, let alone dare to put on a show this challenging at this stage of their career? I mean, I know that Dylan challenges his audience nightly to try and decipher a bloody word or tune that he’s delivering, but that’s not what I mean (nor is that really an aesthetic accomplishment). Who among his peers has the ability, will or balls to upset the apple cart as a refusal to simply crayon with the lines and rust yuppily?
2 – How does he do it? Where does this will and spirit come from? And for how much longer will he? Sadly, there will come a day when he can’t owing to simply not being able to do so anymore .. or he can’t because he is no longer with us.
Thought No. 2 was keenly on my mind as the set unfurled with so much energy and passion from a group of people where, let’s face it, they’ve fooled fate in being able to do this for this long (he’s currently 67 — and Patti’s only a year younger). But they can’t fool fate forever. Certainly, there are many, from Danny Whitten to David Briggs, who have played significant roles in this particular story who are no longer of this earth. Pondering this point, standing mere yards away from these musicians, I tried to be especially “in the moment” for this Neil Young and Crazy Horse concert. How does one know when it’s going to be for the last time?
Indeed, Frank Sampedro recently speculated to Rolling Stone that “my gut tells me this really is the last tour,” adding that “at any time something could go down with any of us. It takes a lot of energy to play that much. (Neil’s) wrist bugs him, and he has to tape it when he plays … I already had an operation on my thumb … It just seems at some point something is going to break.”
Indeed, “Walk Like A Giant” seems to even take note of inevitablity. But, for now, I’d just like to give thanks for the night tonight, Neil (and Patti). Long may you both run, and walk, like giants.
“Walk Like A Giant,” from Psychedelic Pill.
Next On Stage –> I returned to Scotiabank Place two weeks after Neil and Patti for, quite simply, one of the very best concerts I’ve ever seen. I’ll then zoom back and finish my look at my 1983 gig-going by recapping a couple of shows I took in during a loopy four-day trip to NYC. While I will be discussing the performances by hardcore titans The Circle Jerks and post-Throbbing Gristle offshoot Psychic TV, these two entries will look at the madcap trip to Manhattan as a whole, recounting the hijinks that M.Zeppelin, Miss Bennies, myself, and others got up to (if you’ve read my piece on the Flipper show, then you’ll have some idea of what to expect).
© 2013 VariousArtists