Fresh takes on the classics
Neil Young is an Americana legend who, after a career spanning more than five decades, has shaped the sonic landscape of alt-country and developed a devoted cult following. However vast the Neil Young catalog is, even novice listeners can recognize at least one or two of the most popular melodies from “Heart of Gold” or “The Needle and The Damage Done.” As with most long-standing acts, Young’s musical sensibilities are best appreciated in live settings. While his studio work is generally tightly composed, reigned in and deliberate, Neil Young tears the songs open onstage. Alongside his loyal backup band Crazy Horse, the on-stage energy that Young delivers in snapshots like 1990’s Way Down in The Rust Bucket are a testament to a talent which spans generations and contexts.
The live, nineteen-track album documents a performance at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, which emphasizes the artist’s visionary range and capabilities at a formative moment in his career. By opening with “Country Home,” Young alludes to the club’s place in his own narrative; according to Pitchfork, the Catalyst is where he would “limber up before heading back on the road” while his career was on the rise. Conceivably, this made the club a green world or experimental space for Young–as evidenced throughout the Rust Bucket album.
To kick off the first set, “Country Home” is a simple blues tune that reaches out to the audience, welcoming Neil Young lifers with an easy warm-up. From the first chord, the band brightly thumps out the progression and guitar melody; you can imagine the show’s last few stragglers walking in the door and recognizing the vibe with immediate grins. The solo section only gives a taste of what listeners can expect from the set’s stronger songs.
“Surfer Joe and Moe The Sleaze” is a sardonic jam in a dark, minor-chord style similar to “Cortez the Killer.” The full-bodied low- and mid-range guitar sounds complement the eerie backup vocals while the drummer starts to feel his oats, setting into the groove with a controlled balance of power and nuanced ghost-notes. The solo section in “Surfer Joe” turns into a fun jam with some shrieking, in-your-face guitar harmonics.
In “Love to Burn,” the band starts rollicking into Young’s unique sense of time: the song sways a bit behind itself, but has plenty of inertia as each musician commits even more. The drummer’s quickness coupled with a throbbing bass keeps the song moving. An array of guitar distortions through the solo sections throwback to the days of classic rock. Distant overtones approach with teasing energy, only to be squelched away again by the low end; screeching strings mellow to a wallowing tremolo. The band extends itself to a full sway, opening up the time signature with unexpected rhythms and syncopation. The refrain “Take a chance on love” is a welcome salve for the modern moment’s daily bitterness and stress. Listeners can imagine Neil Young grinning maniacally throughout the tune.
Anthemic chord progressions are another trick up Young’s sleeve, and are exemplified in songs like “Days That Used To Be.” It is a straightforward tune that appears on 1990’s Ragged Glory, and the band doesn’t seem to pick up the tune too heavily here. However consistent, the energy remains a bit stagnant, and in contrast to other tracks on the album, “Days That Used To Be” is a bit bland. In “Bite The Bullet” the band shows their depth with bouncing syncopation resulting in a bright jam with AC/DC energy. The backup singers wailing “bite the bullet!” galvanize the song’s catchiness. The band leads into the set break with the fan-favorite “Cinnamon Girl.”
“Farmer John” is a slap-shoe tune that slags along temporally, plopping on the one-and-three. The band is clearly there to party in this jam but keeps composure with an intense control over the rhythm. Young’s solo will melt listeners’ faces with spiny highs and harmonic shrieks; the guitar effects are delightfully frenetic.
While some may be fans of the more prog-rock version of Neil Young, it is tough to fault them. Clean jams like “Over and Over” are thoughtfully executed, if perhaps a little stilted. Rhythm guitar on parts of this track has some curious syncopation. However, it straightens out toward the solo section where Young plays some prosaically Americana lead lines. It is another tune for the faithful Neil Young fans, who can imagine themselves at the show belting out the refrain, “Over and over again, my love/ Over and over again with you!”
The audience is only egging the band on in the second set for more tunes like “Love to Burn.” Instead, they are smacked firmly by the drawn-out bass undulation, a heavily locked-in hard rock drummer, and bat-out-of-hell shimmering lead in “Danger Bird.” The song sounds psychedelically like something from Black Sabbath, until it returns to the verse where Young’s muted palm gives the band a swagger. It is clear in songs like this that Young’s sense of musical timing is just different; his experience on stage gives his senses more opportunities to break through. “Danger Bird” is a fine tune.
Other highlights from Way Down in the Rust Bucket include “Mansion on The Hill,” “Like a Hurricane,” and “Cortez the Killer.” Each song on the album encapsulates Young’s influence on modern psychedelia and Americana, with his curious turns of rhythm and space. The album will surely complicate listeners’ conception of Neil Young as a songwriter and improviser, as it brings fresh takes on some classics and many of Young’s deep cuts.