The first time Frank “Poncho” Sampedro played “The Last Trip to Tulsa” with Neil Young & Crazy Horse, it was a bad trip indeed.
The downbeat song had originally been recorded as a slow-tempo, 9 ½-minute folk-rock jam on Young's 1968 self-titled solo debut, months before Young even started recording his first album with Crazy Horse, 1969's “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.”
And Sampedro had only been a member of Young's favorite backing band a scant two years when they toured behind the 1975 album “Zuma.”
“I was pretty wet behind the ears,” the guitarist said of his first tour with the Canadian singer-songwriter. “We had to go do an encore. I can't remember where it was, maybe it was L.A., I'm not sure. But we're walkin' up the stage steps and Neil says, ‘Let's do “Last Trip to Tulsa.” I go, ‘Neil, I've heard the song. I don't know any of the chords.' He says, ‘It's DAG. D-A-G. Just play D-A-G.' So we got up there and it wasn't DAG. Neil knew the chords and, oh, it was awful.
“But, you know, I always wanted to play that song, and after I did it I was really embarrassed. But since you're from Oklahoma, people might enjoy that.”
The Crazy Horse guitarist was talking to The Oklahoman because Young and the band will be making a real trip to Tulsa on Sunday — not their first trip to T-town and probably not their last — for a show at the Tulsa Convention Center Arena.
They're currently touring in support of “Psychedelic Pill,” releasing Oct. 30 — less than five months after the release of their last album, “Americana,” which was comprised mainly of heavily modified and electrified versions of traditional folk songs such as “Oh Susanna,” “Clementine” and Woody Guthrie's “This Land Is Your Land.”
“Pill,” however, is more in keeping with the lengthy, rough-hewn rock 'n' roll jams Young and Crazy Horse were known for in their early days.
So how did these unprecedented back-to-back studio albums — the first Young/Crazy Horse studio work since 2003's “Greendale” — come to pass?
“You know, at the end of ‘Americana,' we were kinda done and Neil said, ‘Well I think that's about it for that,' and I said, ‘Well wait a minute, Neil, you know, the thing we're most famous for is jamming and we don't jam on this one.' And he looked at us and said, ‘Maybe there should be a jam song but I just don't really have one. I don't know what to play.' And I said, ‘Well, pick any two chords and let's go.'
“And that didn't happen, but the next time we got together, there we were, and he had a song that he started playing and I guess he didn't really have the words formulated that well, so he was singin' it on the mike at a low level and we couldn't hear 'im. and that's the song ‘Driftin' Back.' We played it 26 minutes, and that was the first time we jammed in nine years.”
Sampedro has been with Crazy Horse nearly 40 years, introduced to Young and drummer Ralph Molina by bassist Billy Talbot after the drug overdose death of original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten in November 1972. He officially became Whitten's replacement in 1975, first performing on the album “Zuma” and then 19 other studio and live Young projects since, including Crazy Horse collaborations and solo albums.
Sampedro's mastery of emerging computer technology also landed him a second career on “The Tonight Show” when Jay Leno took over as host in 1992. At first he worked as a MIDI technician for the show's bandleader Branford Marsalis, then as executive assistant to Marsalis' successor, Kevin Eubanks.
It was a job Sampedro held until his retirement in 2010.
“The Tonight Show gig, it's like ‘Groundhog Day',” Sampedro said. “You know, you finish a show, you know, ‘Great show, wonderful,' you go back to your desk and there's three sheets of paper for tomorrow's show ... I really love Kevin Eubanks. We'll be best friends forever. But it's intense.”
But Sampedro never quit his job with Crazy Horse. Now, he leads a more leisurely life in Hawaii, when he's not recording or touring with Young and the band. Young happens to be one of his neighbors, but they don't see much of each other when they're not working.
“I'm there every day all the time and he's so busy he only gets to come by every once in a while,” Sampedro said. “It's amazing how much energy he has and all the things he's doing. I just look at him and go, ‘I couldn't do that.'”
But it was Sampedro who urged Young to keep going after “Americana,” resulting in the double-length “Psychedelic Pill.”
“Neil wrote some really good, emotional songs and that's what Crazy Horse thrives on,” he said. “We can really sink our teeth into that, and somethin' that we have a chance to put our hearts into, and really feel. And we took a lot of these songs for a ride. You know, I was hopin' that we could do somethin' like this and I'm so happy. I can't tell you how happy I am with ‘Psychedelic Pill.' I'm so proud of it. And I'm really glad that we're out here touring and getting to play new music that's just as relevant — or more relevant — as anything we've ever done.”
And when that album was done, Sampedro still wanted to keep on going.
“When we finished ‘Psychedelic Pill' and things were goin' so good and we were on a roll and it was still fun, I said, ‘Why don't we do a third one, Neil, and just keep goin', man? Everything's happenin'.' And he just looked at me with a little smile and said, ‘Poncho, you can't get greedy.'”