In the fifty-two years which have made up his career to date, Neil Young has been a lot of things – an activist, a fortune teller, an elder statesman, a folkie, a rock star, a filmmaker and other titles too – but he has never seemed to be lighthearted. The singer has been interested in making a difference for the duration of his entire career – and that interest has both shaped and informed the public’s perception of him; going as far as to say that Neil Young is a stoic might be a bit far (that title belongs more to Leonard Cohen), but hearing him laugh or crack a joke where a mic was present to pick it up is so rare and novel that the prospect is genuinely exciting. That’s the first reason Way Down In The Rust Bucket is interesting; captured in a small venue in Santa Cruz, CA in 1990 with (arguably) the best band he’s ever had behind him (Crazy Horse) playing a set that is gloriously flawed [most of the nineteen cuts are great, but there are a couple of weak links in the chain which illustrate that it appears here unedited –ed] and played both hard and excitedly. Simply put, Way Down In The Rust Bucket is the kind of set that fans of Neil Young hope to find.
From the beginning salvo of the A-side in this 4LP set, Way Down In The Rust Bucket illustrates how earnestly it seeks to at least please, if not impress. In this case, it starts with the mild (but lengthy) accousticism of “Country Home,” which casts a fantastic spell; the guitars of Young himself and “Poncho” Sampedro intertwine smoothly into a perfect conglomerate, punctuated tastefully by the rhythm section of bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina. As an introduction for the set goes, “Country Home” is as smooth as silk and gets listeners eased in for a long ride really well; true, they know they’ll be flipping vinyl plates, but this beginning doesn’t leave anyone feeling like they need to rush. True, there is some atonality about Young’s guitar tone in performance – but that makes it no less easy to fall into, even as the cut reaches and breaches the eight-minute mark. That same kind of energy – complete with some sighing vocals – endures through “Surfer Joe” and keeps its great, soothing tone in spite of lyrical anachronisms like “Come on down to the pleasure cruise/Plenty of women, plenty of booze.” Those who choose to overthink the propriety of those moments will certainly find themselves lost in an ethical quandary before long, but those who simply accept the song for the decades-old rock behemoth it is will find themselves well-rewarded by the experience.
…And then the needle lifts – just two songs into the running. Requiring that the side be changed so (seemingly) quickly feels awkward, but those listeners who have already been won (a.k.a. Those who already knew they were in) will find the effort easily made.
The B-side of the first plate in this set begins confidently with the extended stomp that is a fourteen-minute version of “Love To Burn” (which does threaten to test listeners’ patience, ten minutes in) but resolves nicely with the comparatively succinct take of “The Days That Used To Be” which follows it in the running. There, all the bases required to make a great Neil Young moment get touched and feels like a bit of magic; the electric guitar solos don’t wandeer on too long or get really gooey or atonal, and the verse/chorus/verse structure about the play is rock solid. It is, very simply, a very good take which is echoed very, very well in the performance of “Bite The Bullet” which follows it and closes the side.
It is with the opening of the C-side that listeners really get the first “meat” course of Way Down In The Rust Bucket. There, the timeless brilliance of “Cinnamon Girl” rings out proudly and doesn’t overstay its welcome at four minutes in length )read: it plays well and its brevity is a boon), and “Farmer John” is a perfect follow-up to that start as it plays to the same succinct and tastefully-performed strengths. Listeners will find that they’re falling under Young’s spell again there – until “Over And Over” lives up to its name and just runs too damned long for anyone’s comfort (at ten minutes) to close the side. Next, the D-side inverts the progression of its predecessor (really long song followed by two succinct ones) and plays with far better results – particularly given that “Sedan Delivery” touches another Neil Young staple (automotive appreciation) to close out the side.
The E-side of this 4LP monster offers great fruit to listeners as it finds a more jovial brief side of Neil Young through “Roll Another Number,” “Fuckin’ Up” and “T-Bone” as well as a little dialogue between the players along the way (“T-Bone” is still a little silly and monotonous, but “Fuckin’ Up” defies the odds and achieves transcendence) and whets appetites to continue before rewarding listeners with the final plate in the set – which is absolutely delicious, all the way through.
It might not sound like the single greatest or most glowing endorsement, but the late-playing of the F-side of Way Down In The Rust Bucket as well as the G- and H-sides are all the reasons that listeners came to hear this set: there is beautiful, expertly crafted folk to be found in “Homegrown” and “Mansion on the Hill,” as well as raucous and poetic rock (with Neil Young’s own brand of history) through the performances of “Like A Hurricane,” “Love and Only Love” and “Cortez the Killer.” those who run front-to-back with Way Down In The Rust Bucket will notice that the energy levels rise dramatically through the final two sides of this set and, minute-by-minute, it feels as though they’re ascending to another plateau. Here, Neil Young establishes dramatic peaks which are positively spectacular (I’ve never been much for Neil Young’s guitar solos, but he eases off of his own trademark vibrato here to great effect on both “Cortez” and “Like A Hurricane” here and makes a genuinely memorable presentation) and then resolves beautifully to leave a fantastic taste in every listener’s mouth – not just those of his biggest fans. In the end, those who run front to back with Way Down In The Rust Bucket will leave feeling energized; no one would call this trip an easy one and it certainly isn’t a quick one, but it is definitely a great one. [Bill Adams]
The Way Down In The Rust Bucket 4LP set is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.