It’s quite simple, actually; imagination and inspiration go hand in hand. If you don’t use the one, you lose the other. So when folks wonder what goads on veteran rockers like Neil Young (67 years old, 52 years making music) and Patti Smith (65 years old, 41 years making music), this is precisely where they should look. From whimsical skits and comical props, to epic improvisations of freeform noise (Young, naturally) and evocative lyrics (Smith, who else?), both artists showed at the Wells Fargo Center last night that they were hardly deficient in imagination – and both turned in inspired sets.
Young’s two-and-a-half hour performance began, not with a song, but with a road crew sporting teased white hair and mad scientist lab coats, arranging the stage to the tune of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Pulleys were worked and oversize cases were lifted from oversize Fender amps; a gigantic hockey announcer microphone was lowered from the rafters, and Young and his Crazy Horse bandmates – Billy Talbot on bass, Ralph Molina on drums, and Poncho Sampredo on guitar – moseyed on stage for the “Star Spangled Banner,” saluting the microphone rather than the flag draped behind them. Uh…what?
Whatever. They grabbed their instruments and launched right into a strong opening stroke, “Love and Only Love” from 1990’s Ragged Glory. Eleven minutes later, the song was still roaring, Young’s fierce guitar solos were still ripping and the four-piece barely caught their breath before moving on into a comparable jam on the classic “Powderfinger” from 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps. “Born in Ontario” was a poppy respite before dang-near a half hour of “Walk Like A Giant,” the whistle-happy rambling epic that closes this year’s Psychedelic Pill.
The last ten minutes of the song devolved into freeform noise, guitars moaning and bending and amps buzzing like something out of a Sonic Youth show. Daring jamming was clearly the name of the game tonight, as was pushing the elements slightly beyond everyone’s expectations. On “Giant,” the fuzz died down and it appeared the piece had concluded when Molina’s kick drum beat re-emerged. In a tight circle formation at the center of the stage, Crazy Horse ramped up their instruments again for a brutal coda. That extended piece was gripping, but results elsewhere were mixed. On Ragged Glory‘s “F*!#in’ Up”, for instance, the chugging coda (“yer just a fuck-up / but it feels so good” ad nauseum) was interminable.
But those moments of self-indulgence were easily forgivable, since the instrumental interaction between Young and his old bandmates was priceless. He wasn’t much for conversation – short of a clever bit about traveling in the “analog time machine,” following guitar-pick-scrape noises backwards through his discography to land on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere‘s “Cinnamon Girl” and the Buffalo Springfield selection “Mr. Soul.” Instead of banter, the focus was twofold – an unbridled, impressive jam session between veteran players who aren’t afraid to push the limits of their instruments, and a borderline theatrical performance. During the new “Singer Without A Song,” an unidentified woman roamed the stage with a guitar case, playing the title character; the stage crew re-emerged in rain gear, battening down hatches for a simulated storm during the brutal conclusion of “Giant”; and when his guitar cut out, the imaginative Young kicked the oversize amp like it was the real thing.
Smith’s short set relied less on props and more on performance. She danced and strutted, spit on the stage shook her arms preacher-style, her powerful voice resounding across the Wells Fargo Center rafters. “Fuji-San” from this year’s Banga was a rager, and was more enthusiastically received than just about any other new song by a seasoned performer. “Beneath The Southern Cross” from 1996’s Gone Again also packed a punch, but the highlight came during her closing triumvirate, which segued from a pulsing performance of “Horses” into a stretch of improvised lyrics placing the song’s central character, Johnny, in Philadelphia watching the Mummer’s parade, and next into a rousing crescendo of “Gloria.” As Young continues to chase adventurous creative roads in the instrumental and visual realm, Smith continues to flex her lyrical vernacular, and both artist’s healthy imaginations continue to inspire not just themselves, but the thousands who turned out to cheer them on.
Neil Young Setlist
Love and Only Love
Born In Ontario
Walk Like A Giant
Needle and the Damage Done
Singer Without A Song
Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)
Like A Hurricane
Patti Smith Setlist
Beneath The Southern Cross
It’s A Dream (Neil Young cover)
People Have The Power
Horses / Gloria
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