Neil Young and Crazy Horse kept it beautifully ugly in 1976
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Editor’s note: This is another installment in a series intended to shine a light on some loved recordings that are readily available, if not necessarily for sale.
“I’m just trying to think of the right song to play here for ya,” Young tells a Chicago crowd in 1976. “I have one—especially when you play two shows in one night, I feel conscious about doin’ the same thing twice in a row, you know. So I have to stop and think. I just thought I’d tell ya about it, you know?”
He then jumps into “Journey Through the Past” on piano, then through a few more solo songs. Later, Crazy Horse joins him for an electric set that likely cracked the theater’s foundation. All that and more is present and accounted for on Rolling Zuma Revue, a bootleg that has long been a staple in this writer’s collection.
On “Journey Through the Past,” Young was in the middle of an acoustic set at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago on Nov. 15, 1976, part of a two-show stand with his collection of rogues he called Crazy Horse waiting for their turn join him. These recordings pop up in a number of different forms, and the one it takes here is cobbled together with a show from Festival Hall in Osaka, Japan, on March 5. They were all shows supporting Zuma, an incredible record that reunited him with the re-formed Horse, now featuring Poncho Sampedro on guitar.
This is also one of the more heavily documented eras in the annals of Neil Young bootlegs, with his entire Far East run turning up on illicit recordings in one form or another, along with swings across the United States. Not to mention the famous “Joel Bernstein Tapes,” which gathered acoustic performances singled out by Young’s photographer and archivist.
Rolling Zuma Revue, then, is one of the more faithful artifacts of the era, for the simple fact that it’s a little haphazard in its arrangement. When the tracks from discs one and two are played consecutively (the way anyone listening on iTunes would hear it), what’s heard are songs repeated relatively close together, songs cutting out and fading in, and weird bits of dialogue that pertain to one night but not the other.
For example, a searing “Like a Hurricane” from Osaka closes out disc one, and it takes all the energy of the spontaneous studio cut that would be made famous on Decade and adds a bit of fire to that. But at the end, there’s clearly an uncredited version of “The Losing End” that starts and fades away shortly after that song becomes recognizable. And then the fifth song on disc two? It’s “Like a Hurricane” from the late show in Chicago, coming less than 20 minutes past the Osaka version.
There’s a sharp divide in Young’s sound with the Horse that starts with everything that comes after this tour. Starting with the Rust Never Sleeps shows in 1978, Young started to get even more heavily into effects pedals and stomp boxes, all to turn his big, messy sound (already louder that most commercial bands at that point) into a frightening boom that walloped audiences with sonics. That effect isn’t present here, at least not totally. The sound is still big and unique, and the dirty chords and rusty changes were still enough to make the typical CSNY fan’s ears bleed.
Take the version of “Don’t Cry No Tears” from the first disc, recorded in Osaka. It’s a messy four minutes, for sure, one that’s lacking in optimal audio fidelity and probably in the simple art of performance and keeping time. But in its messiness lies a purity. This is a song that Young wrote when he was a teenager playing with his friends in Canada, and here he is, more than a decade later and a certified star according to TicketTron and the taste-making magazines of the day, and he’s revived this nugget from his past, then titled “I Wonder,” for his current nosie-making with Crazy Horse. It’s scrappy and, as far as Crosby, Stills & Nash and other music-making professionals were concerned, it was a disaster. But in its own way, it’s beautiful. It’s a glorified wreck taken from a happily shambolic record and rendered for a paying audience as only Young and Crazy Horse could render it.
“Don’t Cry No Tears” was an older song that was brought back to a new repertoire, but there were also a number of news songs that Young first played on this tour, and they’re well represented on this collection, too. “Country Home” was a typical electric set opener (and appears here twice), and it’s a little slice of Young’s life on and away from his beloved Broken Arrow ranch, set to the stomp of the Horse. It would finally surface on 1990’s Ragged Glory, and it doesn’t sound too dissimilar here, 14 years earlier.
On the acoustic side, a banjo-driven “Too Far Gone” is heard for the first time, and would live within the domain of collectors until its appearance in 1989’s Freedom. Other songs wouldn’t have to wait so long to have their day. “Lotta Love” popped up two years later on Comes a Time, swapping out the electric noise present here for a rare acoustic treatment by Crazy Horse.
And a number of songs are still waiting for their moments. This was an incredibly fertile period for Young, who was well into his practice of recording entire albums and scrapping them. But the songs still had a home in his setlists, and gems like “Give Me Strength” and the piano-based “No One Needs to Know” still feels like a best-kept secret shared with only the most dedicated.
There are arguments to be made that these acoustic sets were the true strength of his ’76 shows with the Horse, and it’s easy to see why. Young, on his own and freewheeling through numbers, is a captivating performer. He’s loose, comfortable and chatty, and lets the crowd feel as though they’re just hanging out with him on his porch while he runs through some new songs he’s working on.
“I got so many new songs that I wrote, you know,” he says before “Give Me Strength.” “And you know you gotta keep goin’, you know, you can’t, just …” And off he goes into another one of his powerful meditations on separation and loneliness from the era.
However, the preference here is with the racket he makes with Crazy Horse on half of this set. Both versions of “Like a Hurricane” are absolute tornadoes, but the latter version from Chicago is the real prize. Helped by the fact that the intro doesn’t suffer a tape snip in the beginning, the band brings their full energy to the song that was already becoming a centerpiece in his shows. With Sampedro on the keys, Young’s guitar passages burn over the thumping rhythm section behind him.
The version of “Down By the River,” too, is another keeper. Amped up from the studio version by the original Crazy Horse with Danny Whitten, the interplay is put aside in favor of screeching notes and even longer guitar turns than usual. But he takes the band on a couple of detours, and none are quite as entertaining as listening to Young bang out “Are You Ready for the Country?” on the piano while the Horse plows through behind him, tossing the song’s Nashville leanings aside and turning it into a midnight hoe-down. It’s not smooth and there’s no polish, but it’s a blast.
And how does this whole thing end? With three minutes of “Cortez the Killer” from Chicago, before the tape cuts off and the program ends. It’s not always pretty, and it’s usually messy. How fitting an epitaph, then, to such a glorious documentation of a messy, inglorious band.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org