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Neil Young at the Desert Trip music festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California in October 2016. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons and Flickr user Raph_PH)

Neil Young felt like getting high, so he brought the band back together to jam with him under a full pink moon.

The rock ‘n’ roll icon was aiming for a Rocky Mountain high — at about 9,000-foot elevation. Young summoned longtime partners Crazy Horse from semiretirement and headed for a mountain studio near Telluride where they played for 11 straight days and nights in April.

The result: a new, 10-song album called “Colorado,” a collaboration done in typical Neil Young fashion — on his own terms. Telluride locals are still abuzz.

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“It’s old guys,” Young writes on his NYA Times-Contrarium online site. “Old guys still alive in young souls and the music they make together.”

Young, 73, brought in 75-year-old bassist Billy Talbot, drummer Ralph Molina, 74, and whippersnapper Nils Lofgren, who, at 68, returned to recording with Young nearly 50 years after he began. Lofgren had one word to describe what it was like to play at high-altitude. 

“Oxygen,” he tells The Colorado Sun. “It was rough and exciting.” Lofgren says he and his wife, Amy, took a 10-hour road trip from Scottsdale on the way up to 8,750 feet above sea level.  

“Neil wanted us there a few days early to acclimate,” Lofgren says. When they got to Telluride, the Crazy Horse crew knew Young wasn’t fooling around when they saw their welcoming gift waiting in their hotel rooms: tanks of oxygen.

“I used oxygen every day,” says Lofgren, a former gymnast known for his whirling, athletic moves onstage. “When you’re playing and singing like that, if you’re not used to oxygen deprivation, focusing for 10 hours at a clip, it keeps you from getting spacey in that altitude.”  

via @neilyoungarchives on Instagram

Jim Tewksbury, who owns Telluride Music Travel and served as a “gofer” for the band, says the whole Telluride affair was “very spontaneous, exciting and hush-hush. From what I gathered, Neil got the idea to bring Crazy Horse in and record in a blaze of creativity.  

“It all came together so fast, so serendipitously, and that was the magic of it,” he says. “Once they got started they were on a roll, playing from around noon-ish until sometimes 10 or 11 at night.”

The foursome has been the talk of Telluride since news of the upcoming album and documentary were announced, according to Tewksbury. 

“Everyone is on the edges of their seats, waiting to hear the final product,” he says. 

Crazy Horse has joined Young over the years on some of his biggest hits, including “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By the River,” and the masterful Live Rust album. Their raw, rocking rhythms and screaming, crunchy guitar solos helped usher in the grunge era.

The band has had a corral of revolving artists in its 50 years, but Talbot and Molina have been the roots of Crazy Horse since the album Everybody Knows This is Nowhere in 1969. Lofgren tells The Sun that Young gave him his first big break a year later, having him, at just 18 years old, play guitar, piano and sing on the After the Gold Rush album.

“I was just a friend, and Neil took me under his wing,” he says.  His first experience recording with Crazy Horse was on the self-titled album in 1971 and then in ’73 on Tonight’s the Night,  in the wake of the death of guitarist Danny Whitten.

“So many people had died all at once. Danny, our roadie Bruce Berry, Jimi Hendrix….” says Lofgren, who just released an album he recorded and produced with his wife in the garage studio at his Scottsdale home called “Blue with Lou.” 

Telluride never saw Young and Crazy Horse coming.

Tewksbury says he received an unexpected text on Friday, April 12, asking him to be on call for the next day. On Saturday, he says he was shuffling personnel and gear to undisclosed locations in a Tesla SUV. 

Tewksbury explains that he’s worked for celebrities he calls “higher-end wildlife,” like Robert Plant, Taj Mahal, Beck and BB King, but Young’s posse is “the cream of the crop” in terms of being gracious, kind and generous to everyone around them.  

“Nobody in the business compares to Neil, with Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam a close second,” Tewksbury says. “But that’s to be expected since Neil kind of brought them up. They call him Uncle Neil for a reason.”

“Colorado” song list

  • 1. Think of Me
  • 2. She Showed Me Love
  • 3. Olden Days
  • 4. Help Me Lose My Mind
  • 5. Green Is Blue
  • 6. Shut It Down
  • 7. Milky Way
  • 8. Eternity
  • 9. Rainbow of Colors
  • 10. I Do

Young, Talbot, Molina and the multi-instrumentalist Lofgren kept it real for the Telluride sessions, using the original tube board and microphones. 

“They did have their old ’70s equipment hauled up there to record,” confirms Telluride outdoor filmmaker Hayley Nenadal, who says she worked with the crew on some of the music.

“The recording was pretty private up on the mesa,” Nenadal says. 

VIDEO: See Neil Young and Crazy Horse in action in Telluride.

Longtime Crazy Horse recording engineer and coproducer John “Senior Chief” Hanlon described the scene.

“The Horse was chomping at the bit to record, and record they did,” blogged Hanlon, who isn’t shy about using horse puns. “We were cutting live tracks on the fourth day in the studio.”  

In a two-part diary called “The Telluride Sessions,” Hanlon wrote that the band played nonstop for 11 days and nights, using an analog setup. 

“In a sense, I had to build a studio within a studio to accommodate the additional recording gear,” he wrote, explaining that Young wanted to record the album to coincide with the next full moon. 

“Whenever possible,” Hanlon explained, “it is always best to record Crazy Horse on eight track or less because their best records were done that way, and as the saying goes, ‘If it works, don’t fix it.’”

Neil Young’s “Colorado,” from his NYA Times-Contrarian site.

The “Colorado” album was recorded at Studio in the Clouds, a 90-acre retreat in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride that sounds like an eco-Shangri-La, boasting solar power, five bedrooms, an organic greenhouse, walking trails and waterfalls. 

Recording the album there could have been a happy convenience for Young, whose heart is literally in the Rockies. His wife of two years, Daryl Hannah, lives on a 19th century stagecoach route on Hastings Mesa northwest of Telluride. 

Young says the album will be released in October, but the lead-off single, “Rainbow of Colors,” is coming out this month. 

The NYA Times-Contrarian describes “Colorado” as a double album (three sides plus a two-sided, 7-inch exclusive single) and a documentary, called “Mountaintop Sessions,” which follows the creation of the Rocky Mountain jam session.  

“It is a wild one folks, no holds barred,” Young writes. “You will see the whole process just as it went down! Worts and all! I don’t think a film about this subject with the openness and intensity we have captured has ever been seen. You can be the judge of that, because Shakey Pictures’ Mountaintop Sessions masterfully shot by our cinematographer C.K. Vollick, will be released in over 100 theaters world-wide the week our album ‘Colorado’ debuts, in October.”

On April 20, Young posted a sneak peak short video on Instagram of the band playing in a “Full Moon Session.” 

On April 22, the group posted a Happy Earth Day video tweet-tease with the four beanied musicians standing on a snow-encrusted field, mountain peaks behind, them chorusing “We love our mother Earth!” with the hashtag #Crazyhorse. 

A week later, Young posted on the NYA Times-Contrarian: “We just had the album playback!” adding that it’s “… one of the most diverse albums I have ever made.” Young wrote “Colorado’s” songs range in length from three to 14 minutes, and he says the production will pony up alongside other Crazy Horse collaborations.

The album was originally called “Pink Moon,” but somewhere in the 11-day haze, Young realized the name had already been used by another band, and decided to name the collection, “Colorado.”

The making of “Colorado” echoes back to the early 1970s and mid-80s, when rock royalty trekked to record music at the 4,000-acre Caribou Ranch above Nederland. Elton John, John Lennon, Joe Walsh, Chicago, Frank Zappa and Dan Fogelberg were among those laid down tracks there.

The legendary barn-turned-studio burned in 1985 after a space heater blew. The original Caribou recording studio is still standing on private property behind a fence, but it can be spotted from an overlook on County Road 103 off of the Peak to Peak Highway. 

Caribou Ranch was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame in 2015. 

In his Telluride Sessions diary, Hanlon shared this nugget about how Young and Crazy Horse rewarded themselves post-album:

“Saturday after the crew and I packed up the gear, we decamped to Daryl and Neil’s home for a great dinner and playback session lasting well into the evening, finally watching the alpen-glow as ‘Rainbow of Colors,’ a new song, resonated amongst us all. Sunday saw us all riding out to different destinations, marking an end to this great chapter together. The fruits of our labor will be out this fall as the new Neil Young — Crazy Horse album. Listen loud!”

Adds Lofgren: “I cherished the time with Neil, Billy and Ralphie. These are probably my oldest musical family of over 50 years … friends I’ve had so many great chapters with and to create an album from scratch was a beautiful thing.” 

Updated 8-28-19 at 10:30 a.m. to correct the spelling of Hayley Nenadal’s name.

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @CarolAMcKinley