STATELINE, Nev. - One thing guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro has learned from nearly four decades of playing with Neil Young and Crazy Horse is to trust the musically unpredictable Young whenever the time comes to make new music.
"Over the years, I've learned if you just follow, just stick with Neil, he's going to put out a big ball of energy and a light that you can follow," Sampedro said in a recent phone interview.
"If you just get on board and follow it, it's going to be good. It might not be what you were thinking, but let's just have at it."
"Americana," the new CD from Neil Young and Crazy Horse is a good example of how Sampedro and his bandmates, drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot, put that outlook into practice.
The CD is made up of old American songs - many of them folk standards - refashioned into the familiar full-on electric thundering sound that has typified past albums by the foursome.
And when Sampedro arrived at Young's studio in California to begin working, he knew very little about what Young had in mind for the project. It was pretty much, plug in and play.
"I was kind of wondering what we were going to do," Sampedro said. "Then the next thing I knew when I got there, we were playing 'Clementine,' and it was rocking pretty hard. I was wondering if I was still going to have the same kind of energy I'd had in the past. And I didn't know, and all of a sudden I was jumping up and down and screaming and having a lot of fun. Then it was another one, another one and another one."
In fact, it wasn't until the band had jammed out some of the songs that Young told Sampedro about the concept of remaking classic American songs in the sound and image of Crazy Horse.
"He told us a lot of the songs, or some of the songs, were songs he used to do in coffeehouses when he was younger, like 15 or 16 and just traveling around," Sampedro said. "I really don't know how or why he thought about doing it now, but he was on that path and he was deep into it. And it was fun. He was sitting there even while we were doing it and researching the lyrics."
That Sampedro, Molina and Talbot could show up at Young's studio - and this was seven years since they last recorded a CD and toured together -jump right in and start playing illustrates the unique musical chemistry that they enjoy together.
"One of the first things I said to Neil, we were listening to the first couple of songs (from "Americana") playing back, I was so excited," Sampedro said. "I just turned to him and said 'You know man, we don't even have to try to have this sound. This is the only way we sound. We just start playing and we sound like us, as if we couldn't do anything else. It's so cool."
The purity and individuality of Neil Young and Crazy Horse has at times caused some friction between Sampedro and Molina and Talbot.
According to Sampedro, the other two band members have periodically suggested playing with other artists and perhaps even bringing in another singer-guitarist and record new music as Crazy Horse. But ever since their early years together, Sampedro has steadfastly refused to do projects with Molina and Talbot outside of their work with Young.
"At first I was into that, but as I looked at it, I said we really have something special with Neil," Sampedro said. "It doesn't sound like Neil when we play with anybody else. I think it diminishes what we have with Neil if we try to do other things. So I've kind of been adamant about not doing other projects with them so we can keep what we have."
Indeed, there was a time when Crazy Horse could be heard outside of the group's albums and tours with Young. The original group (with Danny Whitten on guitar) released three albums of its own between 1971 and 1973, and a fourth CD, "Crazy Moon," in 1978 with Sampedro. But aside from a 1989 Crazy Horse album, "Left For Dead," which was done without Sampedro during a brief period when the guitarist was not in the band, the only Crazy Horse music has been done with Young.
The group (with Whitten) came together with Young in late 1968 to back Young on his second album, "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere." Whitten's substance abuse problems, though, became a big issue, and he died from an overdose in fall 1972.
Although Molina and Talbot continued to record with Young, it wasn't until 1975, when Sampedro joined, that another full-on Young and Crazy Horse album, "Zuma," got made. Since then Young and Crazy Horse have reconvened for albums and tours periodically, teaming up on such notable Young albums as "Rust Never Sleeps," "Ragged Glory" and "Sleeps With Angels."
The last project before "Americana," though, was "Greendale," Young's 2003 album. This made it the longest gap ever between Young and Crazy Horse albums, and Sampedro, Molina and Talbot were ready to get back to working together before Young was.
"We always had our hopes that when Neil finished the next project, we would be coming up right after that," he said. "(But) years and years just kept clicking by and it wasn't us. And even Neil came to Ralph's house and played with us a couple of times. We thought at that point, OK it's us, but it wasn't. He's been a busy man, but now he's got the horse back out of the barn and we're ready to romp."
Indeed, Young and Crazy Horse are on track to be quite a presence over the next number of months. Immediately after finishing "Americana," the four musicians jumped right into make a new Neil Young and Crazy Horse CD of original music.
"We were just about finished (with "Americana"), and I said 'It's great that we did all of these songs, but it would be nice if we could do the one thing we're really known for, which is jam,'" Sampedro recalled. "And Neil said 'Well, Ponch, maybe we should have a jam tune on this record, I don't know. I just don't have any songs with a jam.' I said, 'Just pick two chords and let's go.' And so when we were finished with 'Americana,' that's what he did basically. He had a song, I guess he had a sketch for a song, and we started playing it, and the next thing we knew, it was like close to 30 minutes later, 26, 27 minutes, and it turned into a song.
"And when we went back to play again, he had some other material that I guess he didn't get on the 'Le Noise' record (Young's 2010 release) that he wanted us to study, some shorter songs," Sampedro said. "And he had another longer song. We just kind of kept going from there ... It's interesting. It's an interesting record."
A tour of the U.S. and Canada is also on the books for Oct. 3-Dec. 4. Sampedro said that assuming the shows include songs from "Americana" and the next album, which should be out by year's end, it will set up an interesting concert experience.
"It will be the first time ever that we're going to play, you know, you can see the past Crazy Horse, the present Crazy Horse (the "Americana" songs) and get a look into the future Crazy Horse," he said. "I'm excited about it."