Friday, October 30, 2009

Neil Young Acoustic

Neil Young is one of the most prolific and consistent songwriters of our times. Of course, not everything that he has ever recorded has been stellar, but he has remained relevant over the course of 5 decades (!) and continues to release strong records to this day.

Over the past few years he has released old acoustic shows on his own label, which show that he was a strong solo performer even in his (comparatively) early days of his career. He could hold an audience’s attention, he was personable and witty, and he could fill a hall with just his guitar and voice and not sound like anything was missing.

One of the more recent acoustic shows that he has released is his 1993 Unplugged album, done in conjunction with MTV, of course. This has songs covering his career up to that point, with tunes as old as “Mr. Soul” right through to ones that I have never heard before. Though a number of these are performed by only Young, he is joined by a full band at times. I find some of the most interesting songs to be Neil by himself, with some changes to the original, such as his pump-organ accompaniment to “Like a Hurricane” and his little changes to “The Old Laughing Lady” & “The Needle and the Damage Done”. Also effective is the plaintive background vocals to his piano and harmonica version of “Helpless”, which sounds considerably more dire and lonesome (in a good way!) than the studio take. “Harvest Moon” is lovely, with just the right hint of texture added. Other highlights include “Unknown Legend”, Look Out For My Love” and “Long May You Run”.

A few years ago, Neil released his Live at Massey Hall 1971 album, which is the recorded concert that “Needle and the Damage Done” was pulled from for the Harvest record. The record company was considering releasing a live record at this time, but decided against it and waited for Harvest, which turned out to be a smart move!

This finds Young in great voice and with a terrific catalog of tunes. He also entertains the audience with stories and anecdotes between numbers, opening up about his writing and his life, which makes the concert very personal.

Beginning with the wonderful “On the Way Home” (among my many favorite NY numbers), the set is almost a greatest hits comp from the time – “Tell Me Why”, “Old Man”, “Helpless”, “Cowgirl in the Sand” and on and on. Young was already a star at this point due to his stint in CSN&Y (as well as Buffalo Springfield, of course) and was on the verge of hitting with “Heart of Gold”, though at this point it was still an unknown tune to the audience.

Young shows his proficiency on the piano as well as guitar, something that I think is generally overlooked when talking about him. “Journey Through the Past”, “Love in Mind”, and the unusual medley of “A Man Needs a Maid” and “Heart of Gold”, which takes on a whole different feel without the guitar before drifting back into “A Man…” for the ending. Funny, considering that this became his biggest hit and he gave it the shortest amount of time in this show.

One of the highlights on 4 Way Street for me was the supremely depressing and exquisite “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and here he gives another wonderful performance. Equally solemn is the aforementioned “Needle and the Damage Done” with another opening monologue explaining the inspiration for the tune. “Ohio”, played with only an acoustic guitar accompaniment, is quite different, as well, but at the time this was still very topical and Neil is obviously still very passionate in his rendering.

The encore of an audience-requested “Down By the River” is excellent and dynamically delivered before moving into the much more light-hearted “Dance, Dance, Dance”. The crowd wouldn’t let him go with that and he came back for a nice rendition of “I Am a Child”. A great, great show by a major talent.

Even earlier is the release of the 1968 show, Sugar Mountain, Live at the Canterbury, which, interestingly enough, also opens with “On the Way Home”, showing that Neil has a soft spot in his heart for this one. At this show he speaks even more between songs and sometimes just kinda rambles and other times goes into something about a specific song – sometimes at the same time. I do love his comment that “some songs take a long time to write…an hour and a half to two hours”!

Unsurprisingly, since he had recently left the band, he does several of his Buffalo Springfield songs here – “Mr. Soul”, “Expecting to Fly”, “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” and his closer “Broken Arrow”. Obviously, these are all quite different with a solo acoustic guitar backing, as opposed to the full band and studio manipulations that accompanied some of these.

“The Last Trip to Tulsa” is unusually psychedelic for a Neil Young song – definitely written with Dylan-esque tendencies. For some reason after this he goes through a long tale of working at a bookstore and taking drugs (after asking if there were any cops in the hall) before moving on to the sublime “The Loner”, another of my fave Young tunes. More tales follow and more loveliness, such as “Birds”, “Out of My Mind”, “If I Could Have Her Tonight”, “I’ve Been Waiting for You” and, of course, the title track, “Sugar Mountain”. He amuses himself, at least, by attempting “Classical Gas” and admitting that he could never figure out the “next part”.

Maybe these aren’t the best starting places, but anyone who appreciates the beauty of Neil’s tunes and words, these are wonderful documents.