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Poncho Sampedro on the ragged glory of Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Q&A
By Gary Graff
email@example.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte
Posted: Monday, March 8, 2021
See more SOUND CHECK
Southwest Detroit was a rough place when Frank "Poncho" Sampedro was growing up there. But his saving grace was playing music.
"Carrying my guitar case through the neighborhood, I had my band uniform and I'd get some s*** on the corner -- 'Hey, you look like a waiter!'" Sampedro, 71, recalls by phone from Hawaii, where he now lives. "But at the same time nobody ever messed with me, 'cause I was a musician. They gave you props in the neighborhood for that."
The music has served Sampedro well ever since. He became part of Neil Young's Crazy Horse in 1975 and worked on several of Young's other projects, including his Bluenotes band during the late 80s. And he was part of "The Tonight Show with jay Leno" house band from 1992-2010, assisting leader Kevin Eubanks.
Now retired from the road due to arthritis in both wrists, Sampedro is well-represented on recently Young archival projects. He was featured in the "Return to Greendale" live album and film and on Young's "Archives II" box set last year, and more recently Sampedro is part of "Way Down in the Rust Bucket," an album and film from a Crazy Horse club show in Santa Cruz, Calif., during 1990 after the release of the "Ragged Glory" album.
And be assured that Sampedro, who battled an early bout of Covid-19 during January of 2020, is rightfully proud of those past glories...
"Way Down in the Rust Bucket" is quite a find -- Crazy Horse at a peak, really. What's it like for you to listen to all these years later?
Sampedro: I really love this record. I think it is the best Crazy Horse record we ever recorded -- I can't believe Neil had it and we didnít know about it! Honestly, I never knew that anybody filmed it back then, and now, man, when I listen to it, it's so exciting. Neil is playing from the heart, from beginning to end, such great solos, it's unbelievable.
Do you remember much about the show?
Sampedro: Everybody says those are warm-up gigs for the tour, but in reality that's, like, our home. It's like the Tigers playing before opening day in Detroit. That's really close to Neil's ranch, where we made the ("Ragged Glory") album. so it's our home crowd. Just walking into the place I probably ran into 100 people I know. Everybody's giving me different kind of joints and telling me, "This one'll give you clarity" or "Some this, it'll get you psychedelic!" (laughs) It was more like a party. For me it was more of a community service, playing for our friends and giving back to the community and having a good time. It wasn't really about warming up.
It was also the first time people had heard the "Ragged Glory" songs, which is a lot of people's favorite Crazy Horse album.
Sampedro: Yeah, those songs were fun. We were playing at the ranch for so long, and that's a very isolated place, and nobody listened to playbacks. (Co-producer David) Briggs just wanted us to hear the music with people in the building. He kept saying, "You guys are gonna get excited, get jacked up. You've just got to play once for people and get into it a little bit, so that's what we did.
Wait -- no listening to playbacks?
Sampedro: That's right. When we were recording "Ragged Glory" we were playing three sets of the same songs every day, five days a week for about a month -- and nobody played anything for us! (laughs) When we finally got to hear some of the playbacks, they had, like, a competition -- two or three different versions of "Love to Burn" and "Love and Only Love" that were really good, and we had to make up our minds. It became a little frustrating -- maybe someone should've stopped us, maybe.
Neil has worked in so many different scenarios, and you've been in quite a few of them, but he always came back to Crazy Horse. What accounts for that?
Sampedro: Basically, none of us play as good individually as we do collectively. We get together and there is a certain level of electricity and...I don't want to say magic. We just get into this musical zone. People say we're famous for making mistakes, but we don't care. It's OK to make mistakes and just play and try things. And we do all that relentlessly, shamelessly. That's our approach to it -- if it feels good, do it. Just keep playing. If you liked what you just did, maybe try something different the next time and you might like it even more. We're never gonna play a song exactly the same every time. We never even think like that. We're just open to whatever happens in the moment. I always felt like Neil should have played with us all the time, but I was very fortunate Neil took me with him on a lot of other projects.
Do you enjoy watching this stuff come out of the vaults?
Sampedro: Well, Neil has everything -- everything! (laughs) There were times when I was more anxious about, "When is it coming out? Will it ever come out? What's he doing with all this stuff that's on the shelf?!" Now I clearly see it's all gonna come out, and I still look forward to some things coming out.
What else are you hoping in particular will come out?
Sampedro: We did a think on "Saturday Night Live" (Sept. 30, 1989) with me and Neil and Steve Jordan and Charley Drayton that was really good. I can hardly wait 'til he puts that out. And we did the Alchemy Tour (2012-13); After hearing this, "Rust Bucket," I almost wrote Neil and said, "Dude, I want to hear the Alchemy tapes right now!" 'cause Iím really curious to hear how we sounded 20 years later. I'm sure he'll get around to all of it eventually.
Do you miss playing with Crazy Horse, and Neil?
Sampedro: Of course, but I have arthritis in both of my wrists. When you're sitting on the couch playing with friends and you blow something it's no big deal, but playing in front of thousands of people that paid 100 bucks a pop to come and see you, it's not cool. On the last tour Neil called me aside and said, "What's going on with you at the beginning of shows, man? Are you drinking, or what's up?" I was blaming it on my guitars not staying in tune and on my roadies, but it was me. I played great to the end of the show, just because the adrenaline finally took over and was enough to overcome the arthritis. There were nights while I was riding down the road after a show and I had both of my hands and one foot in buckets of ice water. And when Neil was mentioning that I was ruining some shows, that made me so sad. That's not what I want to be. The arthritis is still bad -- but I don't have to play shows now.
You're still in touch with Neil and the guys, though?
Sampedro: We talk on the phone once in awhile. We email. I stay in touch. Y'know, I'm a crazy nut; I go swimming in the ocean every day -- I have 224 days in a row now -- and I've got all this Go Pro (camera) footage of octopus under water, or whales right in front of my face when we go out on the kayak. I send (Young) all this stuff, and he gets a big kick out of it and we talk about it -- especially since most of it happens in front of his old house here. There's a lot more connection than people might think.
Do you feel like your musical roots are still in Detroit?
Sampedro: Oh, definitely -- Motown, Billy Lee (Mitch) Ryder and the Rivieras. I was in the Chessmen, and we had battles of the bands between us and those guys, the Rivieras, out at the Walled Lake Saloon or wherever. We'd go play our asses off and go crazy, and no one ever said who the winner was! There was no trophy or prize or anything like that. I wouldn't trade it for anything, man. It was a great place to grow up and learn to play music.
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