Neil Young at Patriot Center: Still a heart of gold


Neil Young performs onstage at the Patriot Center on the campus of George Mason University, November 30, 2012, in Fairfax, Va. (Photo Richard A. Lipski/For the Washington Post) (Richard A. Lipski/For The Washington Post)

How does Neil Young make such mean music feel so good?

At a sold-out Patriot Center on Friday night, the 67-year-old rock icon showed up in lumberjack plaid, faded jeans and his stomping boots. His de facto expression was a grimace. And with the help of Crazy Horse, his on-and-off band of the past 44 years, Young pressed an ecstatic energy out of his weather-beaten songs as if wringing happiness from an oily rag.

Young, guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro and bassist Billy Talbot had plenty of stage to roam during their two-hour performance, but they spent most of the night huddled near Ralph Molina’s drum kit, cinched by the psychic lasso that holds so many great bands together.

The foursome are touring behind “Psychedelic Pill,” a vast and absorbing jam-quest of an album on which some tracks last longer than most flavors of chewing gum. It’s actually the Horse’s second album this year; in June, the band dropped “Americana,” a pleasing collection of folk standards that now feels like requisite stretching before the 87-minute marathon of “Psychedelic Pill.”

The finest song on “Pill” was a standout on Friday, too. “Walk Like a Giant” spanned 25 minutes, coming to life with a chipper melody whistled by Young and Sampedro, and finishing with tremors of harsh, end-of-the-world feedback. Somewhere near the song’s dizzying center, Young mewled strong words: “Whenever I see the big fire coming / Coming to burn down all my ideas/ I try to hold down to my thinking/ And remember how it feels.”

Young isn’t getting old. He’s being attacked by the future. And Friday night, he was rejoicing in the past, surrounded by familiar stage props — comically oversized guitar amps tended to by roadies in white lab coats. (It was all a nod to the look of Crazy Horse’s “Rust Never Sleeps” tour from three decades back.)

But this performance wasn’t a smug nostalgia trip. Young played with an intensity that made it seem like the past is worth protecting and that rock improvisation is still worth getting lost in.

His solos were abundant, but they never felt like daredevil stunts. Instead, Young navigated the fretboard as if trying to burrow deeper into the song, or trying to disappear inside of it, or maybe trying to inspect every corner of it until he could find a way out.

He knew when to wander and when to punch. After some goofy chatter about time travel, Young launched into “Cinnamon Girl,” its riffs as taut and crunchy as they were in 1969. A loose and lurching “Cortez the Killer” was just as gripping for opposite reasons. It didn’t sound like the band was playing the song so much as surviving it.

The surplus jamming sent a few fans home early, but not many. Those that bailed toward the end of the show missed a serrated version of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).”

“It’s better to burn out, than to fade away,” Young sang, hair flying, eyelids clenched, refusing to fade.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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