Neil Young and Crazy Horse Communed with Mother Earth in Toronto

Budweiser Stage, May 20

Photo: Atsuko Kobasigawa

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished May 21, 2024

At the advice of friend and contemporary Willie Nelson, Neil Young is keeping performances on his North American tour with Crazy Horse to outdoor venues, as a way for himself and his audience to both avoid the pitfalls of pandemic-era treks, and to celebrate the splendour of the environment we must work harder to protect. Naturally, there are other issues that come with such an approach: Young's long weekend date at the Budweiser Stage on Toronto's waterfront saw the venue gates temporarily closed due to inclement weather warnings, leaving a bottleneck of ticketholders shuffling through to their places in time for the already delayed start of the legend's headlining set.

Of course, Young has long told Mother Nature, "Be on my side, I'll be on your side." You don't write a song like "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)" if you don't believe in its message, and you don't take time to advocate for small farmers, or electrify a 1959 Lincoln Continental if you don't believe those actions can make some small difference. In continuing to curry favour with the Earth, the organic cotton T-shirts on offer at the merch booths surely put Young and the Horse over the top, steering the storm away and leaving the band to open with the stoney, stately favourite "Cortez the Killer."

For Young and his longtime band — featuring the original rhythm section of Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums), and younger stablehand Micah Nelson on guitar and keys — Monday evening's set was a headlong dash into some of their finest moments in all their ragged glory, eschewing the more recent material of albums like 2019's Colorado and 2021's Barn, or the unearthed takes of 2022's Toast. The ride through reminiscence was on Young's mind, too, as he paid tribute to late friend and longtime producer David Briggs in introducing "Scattered (Let's Think About Living)" — from 1996's Broken Arrow, the first album Young had recorded without Briggs since beginning his career in the late '60s — to the audience. "Sometimes, people leave and go to another place, and we're left here staring at each other," Young offered. "We're thinking of him all the time."

Viewed through the rose-coloured lenses of nostalgia, there was plenty enjoyment found in the faithfully-rendered fan favourites and the extended jam sessions on the evening. But Young's song selection also packed plenty of lyrical moments continuing to light a way forward for all in attendance. "Love and Only Love" makes an impassioned case for one of the strongest forces in this world, warning, "Hate is everything you think it is / Love and only love will break it down." On oil industry skewer "Vampire Blues," which had the stage briefly lit in the red and yellow of Shell, you have, "Good times are comin' / But they're sure comin' slow," "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" includes the grand desire, "I got to get away from this day-to-day running around." It starts and ends with "Scattered": "When the music calls / I'll be there / No more sadness / No more cares / Let's think about living / Let's think about life."

Collective thought and focus was undoubtedly on Young and the band, onstage without a camera crew or other billboards illuminating the scene, leaving only the large illuminated horse and the giant amplifiers and road cases of the Horse's Rust Never Sleeps era to draw the eye. When jamming on some of their longer numbers, the four-piece teased the songs out like loose threads of a well-worn flannel long-sleeve, at times pulling them in unexpected directions. "Like a Hurricane" was the stormiest of the evening, as Young and the band elected to explore the brief, half-time groove of the chorus (where Young sings, "Somewhere safer where the feeling stays") to a greater extent. Young would repeat that line's first two words and respond to himself with an inimitable guitar lick, as Nelson charted a course for the rhythm section's steady playing with some soft keyboards, with the song soon spinning off into a double-time rendition on the other side. Earlier on, "Fuckin' Up" recaptured some of its rowdy spirit through an extended outro with a thick phaser fully engaged on guitars, amped up every time the vocalists hollered, "I'm just a fuckup!" In the moments where the audience wasn't singing alongside Young on "Powderfinger," he and Nelson would trade more exuberant guitar solos after deftly playing with tension and release with their lead lines on a long weekend-length rendition of "Down by the River." There were only occasional, subtle slips that pulled the band out of sync momentarily, though only the biggest Horse heads would have taken notice.

Understanding Young's continued devotion to sound, it should come as little surprise that the bandleader was in excellent instrumental form. To this author, Young has long been a card-carrying member of "the Tone Zone" — a pantheon of music's most aurally unparalleled players — and his audience was given a glimpse of that canon, with Young grinding out the serrated chords that earned him the title of grunge godfather, or plucking out each note of his straightforward, searing solos. The wonder of Young's workmanlike approach to playing — "How does he get it to sound like that?" "What is his technique?" — remained shrouded in relative mystery by the lack of close-up cams at the stage front. Unlike the songwriter's contemporaries, none of the set inclusions on the evening required alternate tunings better suited to his voice, which was best heard during solo acoustic renditions of "Comes a Time," "Heart of Gold" and "Human Highway" — all of were bolstered by his own heartening harmonica accompaniment in full breath.

Before setting the Horse loose again to bring the house down with a full-band encore, Young asked the audience, "What's your favourite planet?" and was showered with a wholehearted "Earth" in response. A similar question was assuredly on everyone's mind as the sounds of Young and co. roared across the amphitheatre, while long weekend fireworks dotted the city skyline in the background: on what other planet could this happen?

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