Gloriously Ragged

Back in 1991 I named Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger my Album of the Year. A deserving and justifiable choice, but as ‘91 moved into ‘92 I had already moved on. More specifically, I was listening to Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s live album Weld constantly, to a rather obsessive degree. Before his explosive “Rockin’ in the Free World” in 1989 I was completely unaware of his heavier, louder electric side, having grown up with his folk singles on AM radio. Once Ragged Glory and Weld came out, it opened up a new world of his music that I was flabbergasted not to have known about at the age of 21, and I loved it to bits. It sounded huge, was a little sloppy, it was fun, and Neil’s soaring, trippy, epic solos were thrilling. And in ‘91 the music was also very politically charged as the tour coincided with Operation Desert Storm, so a lot of anger fueled Weld as well. The whole combination of those elements was exactly what I wanted to hear at the time, and over the years and decades Weld, out of all the great albums that came out that epochal year was the one that has had the biggest impact on me personally.

30 years later, Neil Young surprised fans with the surprise release of Way Down in the Rust Bucket, a 4-LP, two and a half hour collection of songs recorded on November 13, 1990 at a small venue in Santa Cruz, California. Crazy Horse had already been rehearsing intensely for the upcoming arena tour, and this epic show served as a dress rehearsal. They cranked out 20 songs in total, including lots of obscurities like “Homegrown”, “T-Bone”, “Bite the Bullet”, “Danger Bird”, and “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze”. Thankfully Young recorded the performances, because the resulting live album is a perfect companion to Weld, and in some respects, better.

Weld was a sober, intense album, with a lot of protest and social commentary amidst all the greasy boisterousness. Down in the Rust Bucket, on the other hand, was all about fun. The band walks a delicate line between loosey-goosey and tight as hell, clearly in prime form, and you can sense they’re having a blast playing these new and old tunes. Crazy Horse was a band that depended a lot on telepathy and instinct among the four guys, and that chemistry makes for an explosive, exuberant recording. Young was always at his best with Poncho Sampedro, Billy Talbot, and Ralph Molina performing behind him; together they created a tsunami of noise like no other band in rock history. I’ve never heard a band sound so intense yet so chill.

While staples like “Cinnamon Girl”, “Like a Hurricane”, and “Cortez the Killer” make their usual appearances, the band foregoes such Weld tracks as “Rockin’ in the Free World”, “Crime in the City”, “Powderfinger”, and “Welfare Mother’s” in favour of often more wistful fare, which is a treat to hear. I’m a huge fan of Ragged Glory, and it’s wonderful to hear the band tear through “Country Road”, “Over and Over”, and “Days that Used to Be”. Meanwhile Neil is very on point with his solos, especially on “Danger Bird”, heading into expansive, contemplative territory, his black Les Paul screaming away soulfully. Near the end he and the guys bring the set to a gorgeous climax thanks to a stirring, 13-minute performance of “Love and Only Love”, a song that has become one of Crazy Horse’s most enduring tracks. All the while the sense of intimacy between the musicians and the cozy audience makes for one of the most endearing albums of Neil’s career. Crazy Horse was a bar band that made music that was great for arenas, but Way Down in the Rust Bucket shows how much more magic happens when that bar band plays on their home turf.