Neil Young Plays Surprise SF Shows

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 10 — Pelted by wind and rain, dozens lined the sidewalk outside the Warfield Theater on the fringes of the gritty Tenderloin district, struggling to keep themselves warm and dry with hot coffee, umbrellas, and the hope that they might see Neil Young and Crazy Horse play a rare surprise show in such a hallowed, intimate venue. (In a seamy coincidence, the strip bar next door is also called Crazy Horse.)

This show — the first in a three-night stand at the Warfield in preparation for the band's upcoming dates in Argentina and Brazil — was shrouded in confused speculation throughout the day, as rumors of Young being sick put the concert's status in doubt until the moment the doors opened.

Sure enough, the doors opened, and the lucky patrons poured into the theater, which filled so tightly with humanity that even breathing required careful strategizing. The lights dimmed to a loud ovation, and the seemingly ageless Young ambled onstage in jeans, button-down shirt, and cowboy hat, with longtime bandmates Ralph Molina (drums), Frank Sampedro (guitar), and Billy Talbot (bass) close behind. From the opening notes of Rust Never Sleeps' "Sedan Delivery" through the 17th false ending of "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" three hours later, the show's two sets spanned Young's career with Crazy Horse, now entering its fifth decade and showing no signs of slowing.

The selections included the instantly familiar (a thundering "Cinnamon Girl," a feedback-laden "Like a Hurricane") and the slightly less-so ("Bite the Bullet," from 1977's American Stars and Bars), much to the delight of the hardcore fans wedged shoulder to shoulder beneath a thick haze of pot smoke. Relatively new classics from 1990's Ragged Glory — "Love and Only Love" and the Pearl Jam-approved "Fuckin' Up" — proved to be crowd favorites.

Though Young is reportedly working on new songs with Crazy Horse — their first together since 1996's Broken Arrow — none of this material found its way into the first Warfield show.

While most of Young's recent work has showcased his softer side (last year's Silver and Gold and Looking Forward, his reunion with Crosby, Stills and Nash), it's onstage with Crazy Horse that his music expands most. The crystalline sound system at the Warfield proved ideally suited for Young, with even the most torrid of guitar pyrotechnics and feedback going easy on the ears. Each song stretched to epic length with nimbly executed marathon solos that sounded majestic rather than indulgent.

Crazy Horse was in top form, combining the ballsy low-fi ethos of a garage ensemble with the musicianship of a jam band — and leaving both genres in the dust. As with Built to Spill's lovingly rendered cover of "Cortez the Killer," from last year's Live, this hybrid can sound both classic and contemporary at the same time.

Filing out of the theater and back into the weather, the crowd looked physically and mentally drained — which may have had as much to do with the cramped conditions as the music itself. But given the spontaneous nature of the show, the expressions were more consistent with those of people who were just given a really cool belated Christmas gift that they never expected.