The notion of Neil Young heeding to the fringe Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions element calling on him to cancel his show next week in Israel is as implausible as the legendary rocker deciding to hold a meet and greet with President Shimon Peres or Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Young has spent his entire six-decade career demonstrating that he walks his own path, without following conventions or signposts. He has reveled in habitually reinventing himself and confounding expectations. It’s no coincidence that on his self-titled, debut solo album in 1969, one song, “The Loner,” included the lines: “He’s a perfect stranger, Like a cross of himself and a fox.”
Along with only a handful of contemporaries who came of age in the 1960s – Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Eric Clapton and Elton John, being the primary comparisons – Young has been foxy and talented enough to maintain his artistic pedigree, forge next-generational appeal and remain commercially viable without turning into a strictly golden oldies act.
Young’s most recent output has looked to the past. This spring’s A Letter Home offers lo-fi, acoustic covers of folk and country standards like Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe,” Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” and Bob Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country.” This month has seen the release of a long-awaited box set chronicling Young’s 1974 fabled reunion tour with his Crosby, Stills, & Nash mates that reconfirms both the supergroup’s massive talent and their equally immense egos.
But when the 70-year-old Young lumbers into town to perform at Park Hayarkon on July 17, it will be as an elder statesman who has kept the fires of rock burning, even as he has forged many side paths, including folk, country, rhythm & blues, and even electronica.
Young is no stranger to Israel. He performed in 1993 at the Caesarea Amphitheater with members of Pearl Jam, following their one-off collaboration on the well-received album Mirror Ball. But no band – from Buffalo Springfield to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – could contain his musical wanderlust and mercurial personality, so he’s gone at it alone for most of the journey.
The only other musical comrades that he has returned to time and again over the decades have been the venerable garage rock vagabonds Crazy Horse, Young’s on again-off again collaborators since 1969. They are the ones accompanying him on this summer’s “Alchemy Tour,” which opened in Reykjavik, Iceland, on Monday, and is slated to continue to Ireland, England and Turkey before landing in Israel.
Fans expecting a mellow “Heart of Gold” parade of Young’s acoustic-leaning greatest hits will be surprised, possibly disappointed and certainly leave the Hayarkon show with ringing ears – because when Young performs with Crazy Horse, they create a “ragged glory,” to cop the title of a 1990 Young/Crazy Horse album.
That means a two-hour plus set featuring extended guitar solos, crunching beats and psychedelic feedback, with an emphasis on the heavier side of Young’s oeuvre, including such all-time classics as, “Cinnamon Girl,” “Like a Hurricane,” and “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black).”
Even a reminder of the aging rockers’ mortality, like the recent mild stroke suffered by bassist Billy Talbot, which is forcing him to miss the tour, will unlikely lower the volume. Young’s non-Crazy Horse bassist Rick Rosas is slipping right in to join drummer Ralph Molina and guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro to create the thunder to Young’s lightning.
It’s a different lightning though than the flash that The Rolling Stones brought to the park last month. None of Young’s many personas – laid back California/ Canadian hippie, rock & roll renegade respected by punks and classic rock aficionados, sensitive folkie and country crooner – approach the preening of Mick Jagger or the swagger of Keith Richards. It’s unlikely that Young will recite pithy Hebrew phrases off his teleprompter – heck, he may not even use a teleprompter – and don’t be surprised if he spends more time facing his amplifiers tweaking a feedback solo than he will talking to the crowd.
But when Young and Crazy Horse take the stage in their jeans and flannel shirts (or maybe T-shirts in a nod to the Middle Eastern summer), they will create an authentic, flaming rock experience full of passion, spontaneity, sloppiness and precision that has not been altered or weakened by time or trend.
In separate interviews last year with Rolling Stone, both Talbot and Sampredo spoke about Young’s Dylanesque habit of calling for unrehearsed songs during shows and the confusion that can result in onstage “When you come to see us, you really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Sampredo told Rolling Stone. “There’s no pattern. We just kinda learn the changes and then the solos start happening. It could go anywhere.”
Talbot told Rolling Stone that Young and Crazy Horse see their job as being out on the edge, “always seeing, exploring the limits of what we do and who we are, never letting up. Spiritually and cosmically, not to sound all hippified, but we don’t sound good unless we’re really connected and on the edge of everything.”
Talbot’s temporary departure may spark even additional edginess. Along with a substitute bassist, Crazy Horse is bringing two women backup singers to help fill Talbot’s vocal duties. One of them is New Orleans-based jazz and pop crooner YaDonna West.
There’s simply no telling how she will mesh with Crazy Horse’s garage-grunge esthetic.
After the high-energy spectacle of the Stones and the glossy, choreographed pop extravaganzas that the likes of Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake bring to our shores, the sight of four graying geezers standing there, bouncing riffs off each other – with two new backup singers gamely trying to keep up – may seem positively quaint. Their deep catalogue, buttressed by two new albums in the last two years, may result in more than a few unfamiliar songs as well. But for those who come with open minds and ears, it won’t be boring.
At their best, Neil Young and Crazy Horse will remind the thousands crowding Park Hayarkon on Thursday night of the power of music – not only its sheer volume, but also its ability to provoke our memories and prompt a sense of shared purpose and unity. For those two fleeting hours at least, the audience will indeed be “rockin’ in the free world.”