Most fans would probably agree that there have been several sub-par moments in Neil Young’s studio output, especially during the ’80s. In concert, however, few would argue that he’s been anything less than a safe bet over the years. From Time Fades Away (1973) to Year of the Horse (1997), Neil Young’s live releases have provided ample evidence of his status as one of rock’s great performers, and this latest concert recording — Road Rock Vol. 1 — only offers more proof of Young’s brilliance in that regard.
Listening to Neil Young’s live albums, or watching him perform, highlights the qualities that have made him such an enduring and influential figure. Chief among them is his ability to bridge gaps between genres and generations — without losing a shred of credibility — by writing both timeless and timely songs and by accommodating seemingly contradictory sonic extremes within his musical repertoire.
Neil Young has long excelled as a composer of delicate folk- and country-inflected numbers, but at the same time he has consistently rocked with the best of them. And while he’s acclaimed for fragile ballads like “I Am a Child” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and simultaneously hailed as the “godfather of grunge”, the common denominator has always been his thin, quavering voice, which hovers over simple acoustic melodies and waves of distortion and feedback alike.
Road Rock Vol. 1 was recorded on the “Music in Head” tour of Summer 2000. In contrast with Young’s most recent studio release — the laid back, largely acoustic Silver & Gold — this live set focuses mostly on his harder, raw electric edge. Six of the eight songs featured on Road Rock date from what is arguably the strongest period of Young’s career (1969-1978) — among them several numbers that Young hasn’t played in concert for some time.
The musicians gathered here (the “Friends” in question) will be familiar to Young aficionados. Ben Keith (guitar), Spooner Oldham (keyboards), Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass), and Jim Keltner (drums) have all worked with Young before, and appeared together most recently on Silver & Gold. Keith’s musical relationship with Young dates back to Harvest (1972). The “Relatives” side of the equation is made up by wife Pegi and sister Astrid Young, who supply backing vocals.
Never one to bow to convention, Young replaces the standard short, attention-grabbing rock gig opener with an 18-minute rendering of “Cowgirl in the Sand”, the original version of which — on 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere — was already 10-and-a-half minutes long. During the ponderous intro, Young teases out the song’s opening notes, fooling one rather vocal audience member into thinking that he’s about to launch into “Like a Hurricane”. The track unfolds in vintage Neil Young fashion, showcasing his singular talent for unraveling his songs into loose, rough-edged, guitar-fueled rambles. “Cowgirl” also provides a textbook example of his quite brilliant inability to finish his epic songs cleanly, as he allows this one to tumble into spasms of noise, taking it past one false ending before finishing it off.
Similarly monumental treatment is meted out to “Tonight’s the Night”, from the 1975 record of the same name, and “Words (Between the Lines of Age)”, from Harvest, which clock in at 10 and 11 minutes respectively. While the first of these is memorable for Ben Keith’s slide guitar, injecting the track with a more bluesy feel than usual, the rare live rendition of the bleak epic “Words” is the stronger number. With its subtle changes in pace and intensity, its perfectly placed female backing vocals and its mournful pedal steel, this is a masterful version.
Two other surprise inclusions are “Walk On”, from On the Beach (1974), and “Peace of Mind”, from Comes a Time (1978). The latter, enhanced again by Keith’s haunting pedal steel, comprises the only acoustic interlude on the album.
Notwithstanding a pair of humdrum, unimaginative plodders — “Motorcycle Mama”, also from Comes a Time, and the previously unreleased “Fool for Your Love” — this live set comes to a boisterous climax with a pounding charge through “All Along the Watchtower”. On this ragged duet with guest vocalist Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders opened for Young on some dates of the tour), Young takes the same approach as Hendrix to the Dylan classic, wringing the neck of his guitar with a vengeance.
Some of Neil Young’s previous live albums have been criticized for their tendency to recycle the same material. That’s not at issue on Road Rock Vol. 1. Only one track — “Tonight’s the Night” — has previously appeared on any of Young’s live records. Still, you have to ask yourself if the world really needs another live Neil Young release at this point. It might be redundant, and it might smack somewhat of contractual obligations, but Road Rock Vol. 1 will of course please completists.