Neil Young entered the 1990s acting as if his erratic 1980s never happened. He spent the bulk of the ’80s sowing wild oats while in an unhappy union with Geffen Records. The label was so aggrieved by the mercurial singer-songwriter’s behavior that they filed suit against Young, accusing him of purposefully delivering uncommercial albums. Perhaps they had a point: Once he returned to his old home at Reprise, he started making music like he had in the old days. Buoyed by the creative and commercial rebirth of 1989’s Freedom, Young reconnected with Crazy Horse, the ambling backing band who had supported him through good times and bad since way back in 1969. Picking up a fuzzy strand left hanging from Rust Never Sleeps, the 1979 album that represented their last great triumph, Young and Crazy Horse knocked out Ragged Glory at his Broken Arrow Ranch in a few weeks. The quick sessions resulted in an album with a spontaneous feel; it was the liveliest and loudest Crazy Horse had ever sounded in the studio.
As a full-bore rock’n’roll record, Ragged Glory was an ideal album to take out on the road, which is precisely what Neil Young and Crazy Horse did, spending the first four months of 1991 roaring through North America’s arenas with supporting acts Sonic Youth and Social Distortion in tow. Young’s decision to bring a pair of prominent alternative rockers on tour underscored the wild, untamed character of his work with Crazy Horse, with its swirls of distortion and primitive thump. The ensuing live 2xLP, Weld, and feedback-laden Arc EP tapped into the arena-sized aggression that fueled the band at its peak, all the way back to 1979’s incendiary Live Rust. Way Down in the Rust Bucket, the 12th live album in Young’s ongoing (and now absurdly active) Archives series, flips that energy on its head. Here, Crazy Horse aren’t interested in assaulting their audience; instead, they’re grooving along alongside them.
Some of this change in tone is surely due to the change in venue. Way Down in the Rust Bucket captures a November 13, 1990 gig at the small Santa Cruz club the Catalyst, a hometown bar that became Young’s regular stomping ground in 1977, when he spent the summer figuring out whether his ill-fated group the Ducks had a future. The Ducks didn’t survive 1977, but Young’s connection to the Catalyst endured; it became a place for him to limber up before heading back out on the road. That’s precisely what happened in November 1990: With two months to go before a big arena tour, the time was ripe to kick off the cobwebs. Playing in their own backyard—for fans who were close enough to be friends, and friends who were more like family—shaped the concert from its setlist to its execution. Gone are expected crowd-pleasers like “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” “Powderfinger,” “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Tonight’s the Night,” all swapped out for oddball selections designed to scratch some itch of the band: the unreleased cornpone romp “Homegrown,” a revved-up reading of the Re·ac·tor deep cut “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze,” plus the inane blues stomp “T-Bone.”
As silly as it sounds, “T-Bone” provides the key to unlocking many of Way Down in the Rust Bucket’s charms. It’s not much of a song—there are no other lyrics than “Got mashed potatoes/Ain’t got no T-Bone”—yet hearing Crazy Horse lock into a primal rhythm then remain there for nearly seven minutes, as Young delivers each repetition of its lone line as if it’s a new punchline, is as invigorating as his elongated solos. There’s a direct line connecting this rave-up with “Farmer John,” a frat-rock classic from Don & Dewey by way of the Premiers that wound up as a touchstone on Ragged Glory: They’re party tunes played by a band intent on having a hell of a good time.
Young spent 1990 absolutely giddy with the monstrous, transportive racket he could make with Crazy Horse, but those high spirits don’t always come through on Weld. Blame some of that on the arena setting; blame some of it on timing. During those early months of 1991, Crazy Horse toured as Operation Desert Storm descended on Iraq, so Young sobered up, putting an earnest and angry version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in a prominent position in the set list, then leaning into the group’s harder edges. Way Down in the Rust Bucket, recorded just months earlier, has no socio-political undertones and no angst; here, “Fuckin’ Up” doesn’t play as self-immolation, it’s merely a heavy shrug. Crazy Horse’s immense volume camouflages a sweet hippie heart, an empathy that’s apparent in both the selected songs and the warm, woolly performance. This is a joyous record, where even the melancholy epics “Like a Hurricane” and “Cortez the Killer” skirt sadness. Crazy Horse lumber toward bliss, goosed along by a leader who seems so enraptured by his own solos he doesn’t want to break the spell. Context also gives these seemingly endless workouts a different vibe. They’re surrounded by garage rockers and reconstituted anthems of the counterculture, songs designed to be played and heard in a communal setting. For a dirty, grungy rock’n’roll band, there’s no better place to hold communion than the local pub, where the separation between artist and audience can be so thin, it may as well be nonexistent. Maybe that’s why Way Down in the Rust Bucket feels transcendent: It captures the world’s greatest bar band in their spiritual home.
Buy: Rough Trade
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