Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Yin-Yang Young: Neil's Amazing Archive Shows

Neil Young
Live at Massey Hall 1971

If you’re walking down the street and see someone pinching himself, there’s an above-average chance he or she is a Neil Young fan. That’s because the maverick Canadian has finally opened his legendary Archives. And the first two releases — one electric, the other acoustic — perfectly illustrate the yin and yang of Young. And prove that no one gets yinnier or yangier.

Live at the Fillmore East, a blazing 1970 set with Crazy Horse, was released in November. Now comes a solo acoustic show from a year later, Live at Massey Hall 1971. For most artists, the format of just a man, his Martin and a baby grand would make them more mellow. But in Neil’s case, the intimacy just makes him more intense.

Massey Hall was recorded in Toronto at a time when his commercial popularity actually matched his monumental talent. These were the glory days of the singer-songwriter: Dylan of course, plus Joni, JT, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, John Denver. After the Gold Rush was high on the charts and the tunes that would become Harvest — “A Man Needs A Maid,” “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold,” “There’s a World,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” — were pouring out of him faster than he could record them.

In fact, that’s why the Massey Hall show was taped – to get the songs down. But while on tour in Nashville, Neil hooked up with some studio cats (some of whom also played on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline) and quickly recorded the classic studio album.

As one would expect from famously fastidious Neil Young, Massey Hall has pin-drop sound, some great bonuses, Grade-A material and off course, a jaw-dropping performance. His vocals on “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” echo through the hall like a hungry wolf’s howl across the Canadian tundra. It’s a gripping performance of one of his greatest songs. Equally magnificent is “Journey Through the Past” a piano song that ranks with his best but has never been on CD until now. (It was the title track for his 1973 film and appeared on the legendary live Time Fades Away. Both are out of print). Another highlight is the piano medley of “A Man Needs A Maid” into “Heart of Gold.” And he shows that “Cowgirl in the Sand” works just as well in a solo context as it does as an epic barnburner.

The deluxe edition of Massey Hall comes with a DVD of the video of most of the concert. It’s a small miracle that someone had the foresight to not only record this show, but film it as well. There’s also an early 70s interview with the real-life “Old Man,” the rancher and caretaker of Broken Arrow, Neil’s 1500-acre ranch in northern California. Turns out Neil’s a lot like he was.

Coming later this year is The Archives Vol.01, 8 CDs and 2 DVDs of unreleased studio and live tracks, photos, a 150-page book and more. And that just covers up to 1972. The trailer has some amazing footage: recording the Harvest version of “There’s a World” with a full orchestra. Doing background vocals on “Alabama” with Crosby and Stills. Re-tuning a fan’s guitar so he can play “Cinnamon Girl.” Pinch me.

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