Review Summary: Impeccable live performance and breathtaking production from Ol' Shakey.
Neil Young, country-rock chameleon and general music legend, has been releasing his previously undiscovered ‘archives’ series alongside new studio albums for the last few years. Part of that series but also a stand-alone release, ‘Live at Massey Hall 1971’ displays Young’s precocious songwriting and performing talents like no other single release - it’s not merely a live album, but an encapsulation of the most fertile period of Young’s career.
What hits you first on listening to the record is the extraordinary sound quality - such high fidelity for an early 70s recording, and a live one at that, is relatively unheard of. Doubtless Young has made use of modern remastering for this release, but there is nothing artificial about the record. Young’s country acoustic guitar chops are precise and sharp, and his voice, never before sounding more beautiful, cuts through the mix with a smooth clarity not even heard on his studio releases. Though Neil isn’t renowned as a technically accomplished singer, ‘Live at Massey Hall’ displays his trademark voice in all its glory, and no listener could deny that this is a fantastic live vocal performance.
The choice of songs on the record is interesting, and it mainly consists of acoustic versions of past hits, as well as many classic songs not yet released at the time of the performance. Radical acoustic re-workings include ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ and ‘Down By The River’ - breathtaking in their beauty and simplicity. The electronic barrage of these tracks off the acclaimed ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ is stripped away, and this lets the aching melodies shine through. One gets the feeling that, though Young’s ‘electric freakout’ mode is to be appreciated, ‘Live at Massey Hall’ lets the songs themselves be heard as they were meant to be heard. Needless to say, straightforward performances of originally acoustic songs, such as ‘Tell Me Why’ and ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ are as impressive. Perhaps most exciting, though, are songs like ‘Old Man’, and the sublime ‘See The Sky About To Rain’, the latter not to be released for another 4 years.
There is a uniquely special atmosphere in the audience, and it shines through on the recording - the crowd are in rapture to Young, and you could hear a pin drop as they sit in silence and watch the master weave his magic. The applause after each song is emphatic; even though many of the songs here were previously unreleased. Young’s chat between songs is spot on - witty, self-deprecating and revealing of a dark knowingness that characterizes most of Young’s best work. In short, and not wanting to overstate things, ‘Live At Massey Hall 1971’ is a towering achievement in live recording and performance, and such is its quality that it could serve as a stand-alone introduction to Neil Young just as much as a release that will equally please long term fans.