As I trekked up and up to the third level of the United Center and took my seat in section 334, gazing far down at the distant stage, I remembered why I hate seeing concerts at stadiums and other huge venues. I should’ve brought binoculars. And the opening set by Los Lobos at this Oct. 11 concert reminded me of other reasons why the concertgoing experience inside one of these vast airplane hangars is so inferior to what you get at a small club: The sound was dreadful, with so much reverberation that it sounded like another band was playing somewhere in the back of the room at same time as Los Lobos. At least, that’s how it sounded where I was sitting.
But then it was time for the main act of the night, Neil Young and Crazy Horse. There aren’t many bands I will see at a mega-size venue, but this is one of them. I’d seen Young play with Crazy Horse once before, in 1991 at the similarly sized Rosemont Horizon (since renamed the Allstate Arena). (The set list is posted here.) And I’d seen three Young play three other concerts, either solo or with other bands. They’ve all been memorable performances, and a couple of them rank among my all-time favorite shows.
So, sure, I’d love to see Young with or without Crazy Horse in a small room, standing right next to the stage. But that’s not likely to happen. In a strange way, watching him and his stalwart band from a great distance created the illusion that I was watching much younger musicians. Of course, whenever the big video screen on the side of the stage showed a close-up of Young’s face, you could see that he was an old man. It seems like he’s been an old man for a long time. And he and the Crazy Horse guys (Frank “Pancho” Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina) looked like shaggy old dudes. But looking away from the video screen, staring down at that faraway platform, I saw what seemed like a teenager or maybe a longhaired rocker in his 20s, loping around, crouching, stomping, his electric guitar wailing.
Young had a youthful spirit about him as he did what he does best when he’s in Crazy Horse mode: drawing out feedback-drenched guitar solos for as long as he wants. After a quirky bit of theater to introduce the show (roadies in white coats setting up the stage as “A Day in the Life” played and then “The Star-Spangled Banner”), Crazy Horse took the stage in full-out jamming mode.
Although Young and Crazy Horse released an album of reinvented folk songs called Americana earlier this year, they did not play a single song from that collection. They also skipped some of the classic songs that are usually staples of Crazy Horse shows (“Cortez the Killer,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Like a Hurricane”). But they did play some music from their forthcoming record, Psychedelic Pill, including a finely sculpted 20-minute epic “Walk Like a Giant.” That song ends with several minutes of thudding noise, a dark coda of sorts. When the buzz cleared, Young switched to acoustic guitar for a solo performance of “The Needle and the Damage Done.” It wasn’t the jarring transition that it could have been; rather, the sudden change in mood and style just showed the wide range between Young’s electric jams and his folk-inspired songs.
Young and Crazy Horse were on fire for the last four songs of the main set, then they came back with a surprising choice for the encore, the classic “Tonight’s the Night” — a dark tune of peculiar power that sounded like a fresh creation as it was played on this night.
It was another exceptional performance by one of rock music’s great masters and the band that brings out his best.
Set list: Love and Only Love / Powderfinger / Born in Ontario / Walk Like a Giant / The Needle and the Damage Done / Twisted Road / new song / Ramada Inn / Cinnamon Girl / Fuckin’ Up / Mr. Soul / Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) ENCORE: Tonight’s the Night