On a fair summer’s eve that saw temperatures dip into the 60s, Neil Young and Crazy Horse lumbered like giants onto the Cal Expo Amphitheatre stage in Sacramento and laid down an epic set before a sea of empty seats. They were on tour in support of Broken Arrow, an album-long meditation spurred by the death of longtime compadre David Briggs, but—small surprise—the mournful nature of the music failed to capture or reflect the zeitgeist of the mid-‘90s. Many critics dismissed it out of hand. (What becomes the “godfather of grunge” when grunge is all but done?) This night was the penultimate stop of the tour’s U.S. leg, which consisted of 27 shows over 40 nights. In the following weeks, Neil and Crazy Horse performed at Farm Aid and Bridge Benefit 10, and then kicked off the tour’s Canadian leg on October 22nd.
In any event, the 14,400-capacity amphitheatre—which shut down for good following the 1997 concert season—was the center of much debate throughout its existence, as everyone in the region could hear the goings-on, not just patrons. As a result, the city’s noise ordinance called for concerts to end by 11pm during the summer vacation months and 10:30pm in September and October, lest schoolchildren’s sleep be disrupted. (I actually don’t know the reason why, that’s just my guess.) But Neil and the Horse blew through the cut-off time and ended the night some 40 minutes later, two and a half hours after their set’s start. A predictable outcry from residents resulted, including from at least one city official: “I heard that concert as if it was in my bedroom,” complained councilman Steve Cohn, who lived in east Sacramento.
As evidenced by the “timeline concert” the Neil Young Archives shared on Christmas 2022, however, those inside the venue were treated to a glorious, guitar-first show accented by thud-thick chords, winding solos and what I like to call “cacophonous zen.” The show opens with a raucous “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” and features a smattering of the radio-friendly classics some fans always expect, including “Comes a Time,” “Heart of Gold,” “Sugar Mountain,” “Cinnamon Girl” and “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Also on tap: What Sacramento Bee music scribe J. Freedom du Lac dubs “loose and lengthy jams,” such as the moving meditation of “Slip Away” and gale-force storm that is “Like a Hurricane,” plus both “Cortez the Killer” and “Danger Bird,” and a rendition of “Tonight’s the Night” that’s for the ages. Yet, to quote du Lac again, “Instead of coming off as self-absorbed, Young and Crazy Horse sounded song-absorbed.”
It’s similar in many respects to the show I saw that tour at the Sony Music Entertainment Centre, aka the E-Centre, in Camden, N.J., just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. (One wonders if the folks strolling along Penn’s Landing were treated to the sonic tonic for the soul that was that concert, but I digress.) It was a slightly shorter set at 16 songs and two hours, likely due to having two opening acts (Ben Folds Five and Gin Blossoms), but mesmerizing all the same; the waves of sound emanating from the stage cleansed the soul. To my ears, the four new songs he played, “Big Time,” “Slip Away,” “Music Arcade” and “This Town,” fit right in beside his past classics. (We didn’t get “Danger Bird,” though, so I’ll forever be jealous.) One other commonality: Little chatter from Neil beyond a perfunctory “How ya doing?”
Back on point: The Sacramento recording sounds great, though the bulk of “Rockin’ in the Free World”—taken at a slightly slower pace than just a few years earlier—hails from Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua, New York, on August 18th. A note on the Archives explains that the encore ran too long, necessitating that the tape be swapped out. So while the intro and outro are from Cal Expo, the rest is from Finger Lakes. That off-stage stumble aside, however, it’s an otherwise phenomenal document of the tour that begat Year of the Horse. If you’re a subscriber of the Neil Young Archives, block out 150 minutes and give it a listen. And if you’re not a subscriber, what are you waiting for?