Neil Young’s Journey Through the Past
What an opportune time to be a Neil Young fan. Those of us still tingling and reeling from the remarkably hype-worthy Live at the Fillmore East may be neither worthy nor ready, but the next installment has arrived. (Typical Neil: make the fans wait for decades to deliver the goods, then drop two bombs within a matter of months.) Live at Massey Hall offers an ideal counterpart for the sublime sonic assault of the Crazy Horse concert; indeed, this recording is as restrained as the previous one was riotous, showcasing Young in as intimate a setting as possible: alone, in a small venue.
The show, from January 19, 1971, contains a set list that has been widely bootlegged over the years, with generally substandard fidelity. The sound quality, as it was on the last volume, is astonishing, making this official release welcome and instantly essential. If, like myself, you shudder anytime a reviewer claims that a concert sounds like it is right in your living room, imagine how it feels to actually write those words. And yet. This is Neil, naked: not unplugged in the contemporary sense (i.e., unplugged with a 50-piece string section and mostly non-amplified backing musicians), just the singer, his guitar, and occasional piano—an old school solo gig. The audience is respectful and refreshingly quiet during the songs, partly because a majority of the songs are brand new, mostly because it is not an American crowd (Massey Hall is in Toronto, making this, in effect, a homecoming for the native son).
The context of these first two volumes in the Neil Young Archives series was touched on in an earlier review, but it is nevertheless enlightening to consider what the peripatetic musician had been up to in the staggeringly prolific months before this concert. Shortly after concluding his tour with Crazy Horse (documented on the Fillmore East release), he returned to the studio and cranked out another extraordinary album, After the Gold Rush. Then, infuriated and inspired by the Kent State shootings, he quickly wrote and recorded the seminal single “Ohio”, featuring backing vocals by David Crosby. That summer he hit the road again with Crosby, Stills and Nash, which subsequently led to the release of the live album 4 Way Street. Like a shark that remains in constant motion to survive, Young came off that tour and began writing new songs for yet another album, which he began working into his solo performances in early 1971. The Massey Hall recording was sufficiently impressive that Young’s producer, David Briggs, practically begged him to release it as a live double album. Typically, Neil never even found the time to listen to the tapes; he was busy putting the finishing touches on the album he had already decided to drop next, which happened to be Harvest, the tour de force that cemented his reputation for all time. He was twenty-four years old.
Where Live at the Fillmore East exhibits a confident group basking in the afterglow of a recently recorded classic, Live at Massey Hall reveals the blueprints of songs that would, in short order, become rock music touchstones. The rather solemn reading of “Old Man” is laudable, but only hints at how poignant the polished version would eventually be, courtesy of a full backing band featuring James Taylor’s banjo and backing vocals. Likewise, it’s intriguing to hear the snippet of what sounds like a throwaway number that would, in fact, become “Heart of Gold”. A revealing rap introducing a new tune he wrote (the previously unreleased “Bad Fog of Loneliness”) for an upcoming appearance on The Johnny Cash Show (!) mentions James Taylor and Linda Rondstadt, who were slated to appear with him. A couple of weeks later, Young coaxed both artists into the studio, where they would provide indelible contributions to both “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold”. Young utilized the London Symphony Orchestra to beef up two other songs that would appear on Harvest: “There’s a World” and “A Man Needs a Maid”. Here, they are disarmingly stripped down and demonstrate how adept Young was at constructing short, stark songs that manage to convey vulnerability and sweetness. Another example is the obscure gem “See the Sky About to Rain” (reworked for 1974’s On the Beach), although it’s impossible to imagine that particular song without the slide guitar and Wurlitzer.
The rest of the concert splits the difference between songs from recent albums and songs that would turn up on imminent recordings (exceptions being the aforementioned “Bad Fog of Loneliness” and the atypically upbeat, therefore delightful “Dance Dance Dance”). “Journey Through the Past” and “Helpless” both name-check—and get appreciative shout-outs from—the Canadian audience, and Young makes sure to include highlights from After the Gold Rush, including “Tell Me Why” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”. Comparing the restrained acoustic takes of “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” to the glass-breaking versions from the Fillmore East release provides living (and live) proof of Young’s resourcefulness. Unplugged and unintimidated, Young is taking no prisoners.
Fittingly, the two high points of the concert are songs pointing in opposite directions: where Neil had come from, and where he was headed. “On the Way Home” (from his Buffalo Springfield days) is a perfect choice to open the proceedings, featuring the singer at a moment when, possibly, his voice was never better: fragile, almost feminine, yet assured and unmistakable. On the other hand, even as Neil was getting used to being a celebrity, he was understandably wary of the trappings that had derailed some of rock’s biggest stars. His brief introduction to the recently written “The Needle and the Damage Done”—a eulogy for Crazy Horse band mate and recent heroin casualty Danny Whitten—reveals the sorrow and culpability Young was only beginning to really wrestle with. And again, that voice: it is a devastating, beautiful performance. This, then, is Neil Young as accessible and honest as he has ever been, busy at work on the soundtrack of his life, an open letter to anyone willing to listen.