Saturday, April 24, 2010

Live At Massey Hall 1971

Another live album from the Archive series, this one gives us what might be the first peek at Neil Young's dark period. It's only been three years since Sugar Mountain, but what a difference those years made. If he came off on that album as a goofy, affable stoner, he seems closer to a burn-out on Live at Massey Hall. Now, I don't know for sure that drugs had anything to do with it, but he does seem a little worn out, be it from that, or from life on the road, or health issues (he mentions having trouble bending over at one point.) He still jabbers good naturedly with the audience a bit, trying make a few funny jokes, but he's just as likely to ramble on about nothing or mumble semi-coherently. It's a solo performance, with Neil either on acoustic guitar or piano for all the songs, and there's an ineffable sense of melancholy over many of the performances.

I know I'm making this album sound like a dour slog, but in truth it's actually probably the best live release in the archive series. These are beautiful, haunting performances of some of his best songs from this era. With the exception of a rousing version of "Dance, Dance, Dance," these songs are stripped of pretenses, exposing the sensitive nerves beneath. We've heard stellar acoustic versions of "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Down By the River" before, but who would have guessed that "Ohio" would work as soulful ballad?

The delightful irony of this album is that more than half of the songs he performs are songs the audience would have never heard before, many of which would end up on 1972's Harvest. So I'm willing to bet the audience, while still enjoying an obviously great concert, was a little disappointed they didn't get hear more of their favorite songs, unaware that many of these songs would go on to be their favorites. And there's no way they could have guessed that these songs, in this mellow, intimate context, would later comprise his most successful, most commercially friendly album. Judging from the performances on Live at Massey Hall, you'd think the songs were from Neil's dark, depressing "Ditch Trilogy" era.

Harvest is (spoiler alert) one of Neil's all-time great albums, but it's great hearing some of those songs liberated from that album's warm, slick production. He does a version of "Heart of Gold" on piano (somewhat awkwardly mashed-up with "A Man Needs a Maid") that makes it sound like a downbeat ballad, and not the classic rock staple that it would become. Other highlights include an earlier (superior?) version of "See the Sky About to Rain," and the first appearances of the great "Love in Mind" and "Journey Through the Past."

(Side note: The album includes not just one, but two extended bits where the audience applauds and screams for an encore. Seems a little self-congratulatory to leave that in.)

(Side note 2: Neil's Canadian accent is unusually thick on this album. Make of that what you will.)

Rating: B +

1 comment:

Shenan said...

That's interesting- see, I'm learning new things through your blogging about this! Having listened to Live at Massey Hall after, of course, having been exposed to Harvest, I didn't really make the connection that this was before those songs were released commercially. Puts a somewhat different perspective on it.

Also, this is what really got me to like "A Man Needs a Maid." I honestly didn't like it that much on Harvest. But hearing it here, with all the raw fucking emotion he puts into it, made me love it, and made me revisit his studio working of it on Harvest.