LOS ANGELES — “Lots of things to remember up here,” Neil Young muttered as he stood onstage Thursday night at the Roxy, and you knew he wasn’t just talking about the words to some of his oldest songs.
The veteran Canadian rocker was headlining the second of two sold-out gigs with his band Crazy Horse to commemorate the 50th birthday of the storied West Hollywood club, whose grand opening he’d played with the same core of musicians over three nights way back in September 1973. Each a $1,000-a-ticket fundraiser for kids with disabilities at the Bridge School and the Painted Turtle, the shows were part of a larger Roxy50 campaign spearheaded by the nightspot’s co-founder, Lou Adler, and his son Nic; this weekend, Stephen Marley will undertake a tribute to a widely bootlegged concert his father, Bob, gave at the Roxy in 1976.
But Young, 77, was also marking a pair of important moments in his own history: his albums “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” from 1969, and “Tonight’s the Night,” recorded in 1973 and released two years later, both of which he and Crazy Horse performed from front to back for just the second time (after the previous evening’s Roxy gig) in Young’s half-century-long career.
The LPs straddle his ascent to rock’s superstar class as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, whose smash “Deja Vu” came out less than a year after “Everybody Knows,” and with his folky solo single “Heart of Gold,” which topped Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1972. “Tonight’s the Night” — the finale of the so-called Ditch Trilogy that Young made after “Heart of Gold” brought him to what he viewed as pop’s middle of the road — is itself a shadowy compendium of memories, with songs inspired by and addressed to two of Young’s friends who’d recently died of drug overdoses: former Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, the trusty roadie and L.A. scenester whose brother Ken opened Hollywood’s Studio Instrument Rentals, where Young recorded much of “Tonight’s the Night” in a humble practice space.
“Bruce Berry was a working man/ He used to load that Econoline van,” he sang Thursday, a blend of sorrow and respect still detectable in his signature rough-edged whine.
At the Roxy, Crazy Horse featured the stalwart rhythm section of bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina along with guitarist and pianist Nils Lofgren, who thanks to his job in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band hadn’t planned on being there but who turned up after Springsteen canceled a string of tour dates for health-related reasons; these OGs were joined by Willie Nelson’s son Micah Nelson, who’s backed Young for years as a member of Promise of the Real and who here handled much of the steel guitar once played by the late Ben Keith.
The show started with a complete run through “Tonight’s the Night,” deep cuts and all, after which the musicians took a break of 90 seconds or so before returning to the stage to do all of “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” The crunchy opening riff of the latter’s “Cinnamon Girl” went off like a bomb in the room, which was packed with die-hard fans and VIPs including Lou Adler and actor Rob Lowe.
What’s amazing about watching Young with Crazy Horse — who’ve released a string of LPs over the last few years even if they hadn’t performed together publicly since before the COVID pandemic — is that they still sound like they just met. Whether they’re doing a fuzzed-out rocker like “World on a String,” a bleary ballad like “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long)” or a loping country tune like “Roll Another Number (for the Road),” 50-something years of jamming somehow hasn’t made them any tighter, which is exactly how you want them; the music was beautifully disheveled, as though time had done nothing to harden its surfaces or even out its lopsided proportions — all the more remarkable given Young’s philosophical rigidity as perhaps the hippie generation’s last idealist standing. (Remember his vaccine-misinformation-related boycott of Spotify? Go look — his stuff’s still not there.)
Young, who recently mourned the death of his bandmate David Crosby, spent some time this summer touring in solo-troubadour mode, but at the Roxy you could sense how excited he was to be playing with these guys again — to match acoustic strums with Lofgren, to harmonize tenderly with Nelson, to look back at Molina and Talbot and see two musicians around the age of 80 driving a sturdy groove they’ve been tending-not-refining for more than half their lives.
The songs were old, the stories inside them too. Yet the emotion — the certainty of losses past and still to come — felt powerful and new.
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