The hard truth is, no matter how many albums we review each year, there are always countless releases that end up overlooked. That’s why, this month, we’re bringing back our
No Album Left Behind
series, in which the Paste Music team has the chance to circle back to their favorite underrated records of 2021 and sing their praises.
Being a fan of Neil Young requires a considerably thick skin. Sure, the man blazed a trail of unfuckwithable classics after he shed the hippie deadweight of his partners in CSNY. But guessing where his muse was leading him time and time again made his more than 50 years as a solo act one of the most interesting careers in the history of pop music. Even a hard veer through the guardrails for ol’ Shaky can be more fruitful than one of his contemporary’s creative detours. But while records that contain Young’s name alone can indulge in his freaky side—look no further than his ’80s output for further evidence—his material with his longtime backing band and blunt rotation Crazy Horse tends to deliver a vibe that is unique to them alone.
Looking at the vast body of work Young put out with the guys in the Horse, it’s easy to pinpoint certain changes within the group. Instead of aging like a fine wine, the band only rusts like undisturbed auto parts in a junkyard. You can really look at the group’s evolution in sound with two monumental albums: their first, 1969’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, and 1990’s Ragged Glory. With eternal plug-in-and-play jams like “Cinnamon Girl,” the title track, and sprawling jams like “Down By The River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” the album drew a line in the concrete with spilt beer between how Neil’s records would sound with this band and the softer, more mass-appeal records he would later make on his own, like Harvest. The band’s releases became more ferocious in their attack up until the end of the ’70s with Rust Never Sleeps. But after a decade of hard-to-pin-down Young solo records mostly made without the core group of Crazy Horse, due to a well-documented feud with label czar David Geffen, Ragged Glory is the true awakening of the band we’ve known for the past 30 years.
Like how the official live release of Live Rust found Young and his bowling team (I’m just going to keep assuming they do things like that together) during their Rust Never Sleeps era, the 1991 live album Weld catches these mischievous elder statesman taking a glorious victory lap at the dawning of the grunge era they helped inspire. In fact, on that tour, they had enlisted a pretty great group of Crazy Horse disciples to help remind the younger generation of their forefather status, with Sonic Youth and Social Distortion taking opening slots in arenas on their trek across the States. While Weld is a thrilling and energetic listen, the loose Way Down In The Rust Bucket may be the definitive representation of Crazy Horse during this period.
Recorded at a warm-up gig for the Ragged Glory tour at the 800-capacity venue The Catalyst in Santa Cruz, California, this set pulled from the endlessly rewarding Neil Young Archives finds Young and the boys in a more playful mood, eager to fuck around without the pressure of delivering for the live documentation of their tour-tight future selves at the end of this run of shows. Much like the vibe on Ragged Glory, they didn’t seem to be out for blood at this show like some of the material on Weld, but rather aiming to deliver a relaxed marathon set of classics with a stoned-out, shit-eating smirk.
The set begins with a nine-minute-plus version of the Glory opener “Country Home,” and you can hear the culmination of years Young spent perfecting his one-of-a-kind guitar tone. Nearly all of the cuts from that album are represented in the 19-song set, and many of them receive a similar mid-tempo treatment—sometimes stretching out to around the 10-minute mark, like on the transcendent run through “Love to Burn”—allowing notes to ring out until they decay into blissful banshee squeals coming through Young’s vintage fleet of tube amps. This is the golden era of the “Neil Tone.” The scummy fuzz was behind the riffs and tremolo solos back in the ’70s, but the early ’90s is when it was no longer bound to a reality mere mortals could comprehend. Young creates guttural chugs and notes that feed back with both dissonance and musicality, like a spirit in limbo leaving and returning to a corpse between the jolts of defibrillator paddles.
The set is chock-full of classics, but it’s the rare nuggets like the American Stars ’N Bars tune “Bite The Bullet” that add a certain amount of goofy charm to the set. Sure, the white-hot fury of the blistering renditions of Freedom’s “Crime in The City” or “Rockin’ in the Free World” on Rust Bucket, but hearing the band practically laughing through blissfully shit-faced takes on jokey songs like Re-Actor’s “T-Bone” (“Got mashed potatoes / Ain’t got no T-Bone”) and the pro-legalization stomp of “Homegrown” is arguably more fun and representative of Young and Crazy Horse at their core.
Perhaps the most charming of all is their take on the Zuma kiss-off “Don’t Cry No Tears.” When the band concludes the song, Young doesn’t seem quite satisfied with moving on, so he slowly launches back into the second verse and the band gradually joins him for another partial go-around. “I just wanted to sing a little more,” he mumbles in between lyrics. Once the final chords ring out, he says, “That’s kind of a little Las Vegas ending we put on that for you.” Bassist Billy Talbot jokingly responds, “We might have to go to Vegas soon, it’s hard to find a job!” The two giggle like old friends playing covers in a garage riddled with empty Molsons, rather than millionaire rock stars who have influenced the changing tides of rock and roll.
The true treasure of Way Down In The Rust Bucket is the set’s final three extended jams: “Like a Hurricane,” “Love and Only Love” and an appropriately transfixing run through “Cortez The Killer.” Before launching into the towering and emotional version of the chaotic epic “Hurricane,” Young says, “We’d like to dig way down in the rust bucket for this one,” giving the release its appropriate title. On “Love and Only Love,” the band anoint the newer song with the classic status it would later achieve as a highlight at Crazy Horse gigs. The song packs one of Young’s best choruses and enough guitar gunpowder to “shelter from the powder and the finger.”
By the time they reach “Cortez,” Young, Talbot, guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro and drummer Ralph Molina had laid to waste the previous decade of relative inactivity. Rather than speed through it with any sort of aggression to prove their worth to the newly initiated in the audience, they take their time, letting Young’s spectral tone pierce the sludge. As he sings the song in a hushed quiver, the band provides delicate harmonies to aid him throughout the retelling of the story.
With just three songs in the set’s last 37 minutes, Neil Young and Crazy Horse reach the final steps of the altar they had erected at their previous peak. It’s as if they reached down into the Rust Bucket to find a new sense of purpose while entering the final years of the 20th century. Now that “Pancho” has retired from the group due to a serious hand injury, with Nils Lofgren stepping in as a replacement, we may never hear this group blasting it out in full IDGAF fashion like this ever again. It’s why this long-lost document may be the most important live offering there is of Neil Young and Crazy Horse—or at least the most important Young has shared with us. Long may they rust.
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.
Revisit a 1998 Young performance from the Paste archives below.