”Rust never sleeps!” Neil Young hollered a decade ago. It was his way of telling us that decay was everywhere and implacable in its onslaught. Sadly, in the 11 years since the Rust Never Sleeps album and tour, he has drifted, toying with everything from computer music to R&B. But with last year’s raucous Ragged Glory album and the start of a strikingly single-minded and thunderously loud concert tour in Minneapolis on Jan. 22, it’s clear that Young considers himself to be on the front lines of the war against rust again.
The show was a 4 hour and 15 minute guitar extravaganza that also included two high-volume noise bands: Social Distortion — featuring Mike Ness, a tattooed latter-day punk who plays his guitar and sneers with equal ferocity — and, in a chancy but appropriate appearance, Sonic Youth, for years an underground fave. This New York art-rock outfit has slowly been coming to the surface, notably with its first major-label record, last year’s Goo. Besides a ground-breaking appearance with the rap group Public Enemy in Chicago on Dec. 29, the show was only the band’s second performance in front of more than a thousand people. Unfortunately, technical trouble disrupted Sonic Youth’s start, and despite some valiant efforts by frenzied lead singer Thurston Moore, the performance — honed in clubs a fraction the size of Minneapolis’ 20,000-seat Target Center — couldn’t project past the first few rows.
Young offered a remarkable spectacle: one of rock’s great artists still fighting to keep himself relevant. At his side was Crazy Horse, the stolid, deadpan hard-rock threesome that played with him on the Rust Never Sleeps album and tour. He seemed older and wiser, but forever Young. His hair still looks like he cuts it with pruning shears; he still has the onstage prancing step of a proud stallion; his firestorm of guitar leads are as urgent as ever.
Early on, he sang profoundly ambivalent songs about peace, love, freedom, and war. Then came air raid sirens, and the sounds of rain and thunder before a slow, ringing, rapturously loud take on Bob Dylan’s ”Blowin’ in the Wind.” After that stellar beginning, things settled down, and the audience had to sit through an almost physically assaultive set of Ragged Glory songs. But the crowd was roused by Young’s obscure though essential ”Campaigner,” with its timeless line, ”Even Richard Nixon has got soul,” which Young kindly updated to include Ronald Reagan and George Bush. And he ended the show with ”Tonight’s the Night,” his scary memorial to a junkie from the 1975 album of the same name. Anyone could make the connections: Here we are at war again; kids are still killing themselves with drugs. Neil Young, the scarred veteran of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, has seen it all before.