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Neil Young in Winnipeg: Long May He Run

Credit: Photos by Jim McGuinn

Two weekends ago I grabbed the family and hopped in the Prius for an epic road trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba to see an epic artist: Neil Young. The 67-year old rocker may have skipped the Twin Cities on his 2012 touring schedule, but there was no way I was going to miss another chance to see him with his longtime band Crazy Horse. Who knows if he’ll ever tour with Crazy Horse again?  

Neil is a mercurial artist and legend, and every one of the six times I’ve seen him in the past 20 years he’s put on an incredible show. Plus, the next night would see Metric at the same venue, the MTS Centre — where the Jets play, similar to the Xcel Center in St. Paul — so the opportunity to catch their show and audience in their native Canada was icing on the cake. 

Day one: Drive to Winnipeg. For those that haven’t travelled the 469 or so miles each way, here’s how it goes: Leave the Twin Cities. Drive northwest till you get to Fargo, ND, the halfway point. For me, it’s a chance to knock another state off my list. Turn right and drive straight north through some of the flattest windswept terrain you will ever see. With a speed limit of 75, you can zip past a cop at 80 and not even flinch for your brakes. It’s like the Autobahn out there, and the sky is big. Hit the border (why are the Canadian border agents so much nicer than those from the US?), and cross into Manitoba, where immediately you are struck by the sight of a massive wind turbine field and more flatness until you arrive in Winnipeg.  

Checked into the Fort Garry Hotel, built next to the rail station back in 1913, when the Canadian Pacific Railway’s presence determined if your city was going to thrive or disappear. Winnipeg has become the sixth largest city in Canada, with a population of about 730,000. We grabbed food at The Forks, which is at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, and kind of like the Midtown Global Market.

Going to Canada is always a lot like America, and yet not. Gas is sold in litres. Poutine features gravy and cheese curds on French fries. Instead of Dunkin’ Donuts, there’s Tim Horton’s. Tegan and Sara are played on the Top 40 station at the gym. And when you walk into the show, there’s Curling on the Jumbotron. And people are actually watching it, transfixed in this year without hockey by a sport that seems to mix bowling with sweeping the floor.

But it’s also just like America. A Neil Young show features a lot of dudes in the crowd with graying pony tails and beer bellies. And while I expected Neil to change up his set for his hometown fans, he barely acknowledged where he was at, and played pretty much the same set he’s been playing all through this tour, heavy on material from his recent double-CD, Psychedelic Pill. One cool thing about the Crazy Horse show, though — it begins before the band takes the stage, as Neil has his road crew dressed in lab coats and road construction garb, and the set change is conducted with all the lights on, giant road cases hoisted to the rafters, exposing the giant amps and microphone that has been the main stage prop for Crazy Horse shows since 1978’s Rust Never Sleeps tour. 

When the stage is set, the crew and band climbed onstage together to sing the Canadian national anthem with the flag behind them (in the US dates of the tour it’s been the “Star Spangled Banner”), dropped the flag to expose a giant Crazy Horse tapestry, and we were off and raging — opening with a scorching 13-minute version of “Love and Only Love” from 1990’s Ragged Glory. While the show topped two hours, they only played 13 songs, most were stretched out and often turned not into noodly “jams” a la Phish, but rather into noise experiments. Neil and fellow guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro alternately locked into the song’s simple grooves or rode waves of feedback shards. It’s clear to see why Neil took Sonic Youth on the road with him back in 1992 and how the generational interplay connects him not only with grunge rockers like Pearl Jam but also the more experimental exponents of indie rock.

The band could have been playing a small club as easily as an arena, as most of the show they faced each other huddled together in the center of the stage, rather than posturing for the audience. Besides the giant props, though, Neil did have another moment of odd theatricality — on a new unreleased tune called “Singer Without a Song,” an actress wandered around the stage, carrying a guitar, before ambling off. With no explanation or setup from our host. Or as my wife said, “He’s got some 6th grade production ideas here, and no one to tell him no, which is both charming and bizarre.” Crazy Uncle Neil. 

The centerpiece of the show was the extended version of “Walk Like a Giant” from Psychedelic Pill. An untethered and transcendent Crazy Horse rode the song for over 20 minutes, with a musical quote from “Hey Hey, My My” and nearly 10 minutes of “playing the feedback” while simulating dinosaurs stomping across the plains. Or, as my son Jameson noted, “this song has a really long ending.” Whereas some veteran acts turn into oldies machines (Rod Stewart) and others insist on force-feeding new material (Madonna), Neil struck a terrific balance, mixing electrifying performances of the stronger songs from the new album with both hits and album cuts — one song from Ragged Glory with an unprintable title stretched into a crowd sing-a-long, which led to some interesting questions from our 6-year old — from throughout his career, ending the show with powerful versions of “Mr. Soul” and “Hey Hey, My My” while ripping as much noise as possible out of Ol’ Black, his tweaked-out 1953 Gibson Les Paul, and his hugely overdriven 1959 Fender Duluxe amp.

The 6-year-old’s rendering of Neil

Leaving the MTS Centre we were clearly amped up from the show and exhausted from our long day and had a snowball fight all the way back to the hotel (Winnipeg had had a foot of snow that week). It’s only 200 miles north, but much colder than TC in the winter.         

Day Two: Winnipeg feels kinda like the Twin Cities, a cultural and regional capitol, a place where anyone artsy comes in from the prairies to live and work, and also like a final outpost before our respective countries de-populate into big sky country. We spent a few hours with Stephen Carroll of the Weakerthans and his wife, learning about the history of Winnipeg, checking out art galleries and record shops, and talking about the differences and similarities we share with our Canadian cousins. 

Then it was back to the MTS Centre to see Stars and Metric. The venue was set up smaller than for Neil, with about 5,000 in attendance, and it was cool to see Metric taking on the arenas as now one of the biggest Canadian rock acts. The show was very similar to their gig at the State Theatre a few months back, with Emily Haines stalking the stage in captivating fashion and the band ripping through both new material and their growing catalog of hits. Some of the surrealism for me was comparing the audience from both the night before and Metric’s crowd in the states: both 20 years younger than Neil’s fans and 20% more female, with about a 60/40 ratio and mostly comprised of 20-somethings. Emily Haines has become a rockstar and icon in Canada –- hipster glasses, fashionable haircuts, short skirts and boots abounded, despite the temps in the teens outside. When I overheard in the crowd, “Remember that show where I was making out with this guy that looked like Sam Roberts… While we were watching Sam Roberts?,” I realized I wasn’t in Minnesota anymore. Metric rocked hard, and you could feel that modest Canadian pride over the fact that one of their own was now going for it with their elaborate light show and dynamic stage presence.

The night was topped off with more hanging out with Stephen and Amanda, drinking bottles of Half Pints (Winnipeg’s Surly) and closing a bar in the glow of a great show. It appears that for all the differences there’s a shared feeling that great rock and roll inspires.