The ups and downs of 12 month's in the artist's life

Most days, you’ll find Poncho Sampedro outside. After 18 ½ years working at NBC, he has effectively retired to Hawaii where he enjoys gardening, swimming and other outdoor pursuits. He still makes music, though. In his living room, there are two acoustic guitars, a ukulele and an acoustic bass. Every Tuesday night, a friend drops by and they play “really hard” for five or six hours.

“It’s funny,” he says, reflecting on Young’s 2014. “While the rest of us are slowing down, Neil’s speeding up. He seems more conscious of work than ever before.” One person, Sampedro notes, who isn’t here to witness Young’s creative streak is long-standing producer David Briggs, who died in 1995. “He was such a big influence with this band and Neil,” he explains. “We had to rock and you had to deliver. You can’t play around. He would go up to Neil, get right in Neil’s face and say, ‘It seems to me like you’re just noodling around. Don’t you have anything to say when you solo? People don’t come to listen to you just to hear you noodle around.’ Nobody talks to Neil like that any more. I don’t know who he would listen to these days. I don’t know who could step in and do that. People can tell him what to do, but he doesn’t listen to anybody.”

It has been an unpredictable year for Crazy Horse; a band who have experienced more than their fare share of upheaval. Next year marks 40 years since Sampedro made his Crazy Horse debut on Zuma. Since then, there have been several unreleased Crazy Horse albums recorded with Young. More recently, the band had to curtail their 2013 tour after Sampedro broke a finger and thumb on his left hand. Crazy Horse reconvened with Young earlier this year to prepare for a series of European tour dates. Arriving on June 10 at the Fox Theater in Oakland, California for three days of rehearsing, they found Young even had a new song prepared: “Who’s Gonna Stand Up”.

“Neil starts playing it,” begins Sampedro, explaining how Young routinely introduces a new song to the band. “He stares at you. You start playing along with him. You plug through it a couple of times. Then he’ll stop. I remember on ‘Who’s Gonna Stand Up’, he stopped and I said, ‘Neil, what is that riff that you played at the beginning?’ He said, ‘Which one?’ I started playing something like I thought was the riff and he goes, ‘That’s about it.’ It’d be nice if we played it together. ‘No, no. That’s fine.’ We definitely really got it. I think the last night we played it pretty good. But Neil never took the time at a soundcheck to say, ‘Okay, this is it, we’re going to play this four times, then three times, then this happens, then that happens.’ He never really laid it out and said, ‘This is it.’ So it was always a little unsettled.”

After the last date of rehearsals – June 13 – Sampedro headed home. Five days later, he received a call from Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts, telling him Billy Talbot had suffered a stroke. “Billy was travelling from Oakland to South Dakota,” says Sampedro. “His wife was driving. He told me it was kind of odd, he said he didn’t even know that he had a stroke. They stopped at Salt Lake City, Utah, then when he went to step out of the car, his foot wouldn’t work. He said, ‘If I hadn’t got out of the car I wouldn’t even know that I’d had a stroke.’ My first inkling when Elliot called me was the tour is cancelled. Then the next day, I got a call from Neil and he said he talked to Rick Rosas and said, ‘We got a bass player, we can do this.’”

Rosas was on vacation in Santa Barbara when he got a call from Young on June 18. “He asked if I was willing to come out and help him out,” confirms Rosas, in an interview that took place just a week before his death. “I said, ‘Of course, I’m willing to help you out. This is kind of a strange circumstance, but I’m there for you.’ He says ‘I’ll send you some songs for you to learn and just take it from there.’ I think I had maybe 10 days to rehearse the material I was unfamiliar with.”

“Neil said, ‘Why don’t you just sing most of Billy’s parts?’,” continues Sampedro. “I’m not the world’s best harmony singer, but I was enthusiastic that morning. I told Neil, ‘Yeah, I’ll fill in for Billy, I’ll take over, I’ll do what I can.’ I went through all the songs we had, I started singing background parts to figure out Billy’s parts. I called Neil back the next morning, my voice was hoarse. I said, ‘Neil, I can’t do it. I’m going to be the cause of really screwing up some shows if I have to sing on all of those. It’s not going to be fun. He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get some background singers.’ I never understood or realised how many changes that was going to make in the band, just not having Billy there. First of all, it took three people to fill in for him. Then we really never could rock like when Billy’s there. It’s so easy to rock. That’s what we do. With this configuration, it was a little softer, the intensity was gone. That’s not taking away anything, we were a good band still. But we just weren’t what everybody knows as Crazy Horse.”

The band – augmented by Dorene Carter and YaDonna West – headed to Iceland at the start of July. “We had three days to rehearse,” says Sampedro. “I remember walking in the dressing room, and Ralph was sitting with his head down and I said, ‘What’s up, Ralph?’ He goes, ‘I miss Billy.’ I went, ‘Well, I miss him, too!’ It was funny, he said, ‘I just miss his face, I miss his intensity, I miss his expressions.’ I said, ‘I miss the constant beat that we always have, too.’ Rick plays too good; Rick knows a lot of notes, he can play all over the place and Billy, we just get in a groove and lock it down and hold it there. Nothing ever wavers. “Nothing that Rick does is wrong, it’s just something we’re not used to. I think we were suffering because it wasn’t Crazy Horse, Ralph and I. But Neil went to the next level. He was enjoying the fact that he had a new band with girls who could sing all the parts and a bass player that could play a lot of different stuff. That’s why the material was so different. He had freedom to do a lot of other things. We weren’t doing classic Crazy Horse hits on that tour.”

Indeed, the Crazy Horse summer tour of Europe was one of the most irregular in Young’s ever-evolving relationship with his trusty backing band. It wasn’t just the different focus and energy that inevitably accompanied the change in personnel; but the tantalising possibilities it presented. Young dusted down relative rarities like “Separate Ways” and “Goin’ Home” and incorporated “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and “After The Goldrush” that he’d not played with Crazy Horse since 2001. Songs introduced on the 2013 Alchemy tour – “Hole In The Sky” and “Singer Without A Song” – vanished from the sets entirely, putting paid to speculation (dismissed by Sampedro) that there was a new Crazy Horse album in the works.

“We always do these vocal warm-ups before each show, about 20 minutes we’ll be singing through scales,” reveals Sampedro. “He’ll stop right in the middle of that and go like, ‘You know the part to “Down By The River” is this low part, Poncho.’ He’ll sing it like twice then go back to the vocal warm ups and then we’ll do the song that night. Or he’ll turn to somebody else and say, ‘Do you know “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”?’ That’s the only mention of it, and then he does it. I remember one night, all the buses were parked by this river and I said to myself, ‘Oh man, I hope we don’t do “Down By The River” tonight.’ We walked on stage and he started it and we played it for 25 minutes! I love that song, but I always feel self-conscious about that song because Danny [Whitten] played such great parts on it. I always feel like I’m struggling when I do that song.”

“I was told to learn ‘Ramada Inn’ and a few other ones, so I already had them stuck in my head,” adds Rosas. “But we never got into them. We just got into this set that morphed into what he thought was best for the situation, I guess. But he’s got so much material, you never know what he’s going to throw at you. I’ve been on tours with Neil where there were no set lists! Hopefully, he’ll tell somebody before he starts out the song.”

“It’s almost guaranteed that if you rehearse it and know it perfectly, you’ll never play it,” laughs Sampedro. “As the tour progressed, Neil got more and more into the activist part of it. The war in Israel was happening. We had to cancel our show there. From then on, all of a sudden we were playing a lot more politically minded songs. We had a whole group of new songs to learn again. During that tour, I think we had about 25 songs from the beginning to the end that we played. It’s funny, here at home in the States, we don’t see as much of the small conflicts that are going on globally on our TV news. But when you’re in Europe, you turn on the TV and flick through the channels, you see war, war, war, war. I think that was a big part of it. We were looking forward to playing Israel. We played in Turkey around that same time and just to get into our hotel you had to go through a screening process like at an airport. I think all those things affected Neil.”

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