2 of 2 thought this review was well written
Reviewing a live album would normally sound about as fun as, well, I don’t know, something that isn’t very fun. I mean, its hard enough finding a live album that actually keeps me interested … even Tom Waits’ Big Time
bores the crap out of me, and I’m fairly obsessed with the man.
There are, however, a handful of live albums that I’ve always loved and likely always will. Did I say a handful? OK, its really only three: Bob Dylan’s Live 1966
, Neil Young’s MTV Unplugged
and the Who’s Live at Leeds
. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York
album is great, sure, but I don’t really find myself listening to it as much as I did, say, when I was still in high school.
Of those three live albums I’ve always loved, Neil Young’s MTV Unplugged
is the one I cherish the most. Not only is it my favorite live album, it’s my favorite Neil Young album. I dig After the Gold Rush
, sure, and of course I dig Harvest
. And Tonight’s the Night
. And On the Beach
. And Rust Never Sleeps
. And even this year’s Living with War
is a favorite … OK, you get the idea.
The point is that this is an obsessive Neil Young fan telling you that MTV Unplugged
is his finest effort, not just somebody who has only heard one or two other albums. If you haven’t heard this, and you like Neil Young, just stop reading my review and go buy it.
Actually, go ahead and stick around. Then you can go.
The thing about MTV Unplugged
is that Young’s song selection is incredible. Some reviewers (the infinitely helpful, usually brilliant All Music Guide, for instance) say the album suffers because Young chose a strange selection of material, but I feel that the set list is part of what makes this an essential listen. This isn’t Young sitting down on a stool, playing his greatest hits and hoping a new generation of fans see him on MTV and listen to his music, this is simply one of the world’s most gifted singer/songwriters sharing his talent.
He does play some of his hits, don’t get me wrong. But he also throws enough curveballs that listeners will be (pleasantly) surprised.
One more thing before I get into track-by-track mode: This is not
just “an acoustic album." The guitars Young plays are acoustic, obviously, but they don’t have that lush, flawless sound you hear when, say, James Taylor plays an acoustic guitar. The playing sounds flat-out raw
. And there’s plenty of harmonica, pump organ and piano to keep things from getting to where it all sounds the same.
OK, here we go:
1. The Old Laughing Lady
How does Young start out his set? With “Heart of Gold"? “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)"? No, he kicks things off with “The Old Laughing Lady," a largely unknown track from his inconsistent 1969 debut. The performance here is terrific, his voice sounding as beautiful as ever. “The Old Laughing Lady" is a haunting track to begin with, but it sounds even more so in the context of kicking off a live album in front of a small crowd. A great way to start. 4/5
2. Mr. Soul
Next, Young does “Mr. Soul," one of the best compositions from his Buffalo Springfield days. And while the original was raw and loud, he slows it down here, adding a great harmonica to the intro and singing with an almost mysterious delivery. Excellent stuff. 4/5
3. World on a String
“World on a String" is one of the many highlights from 1975’s grim-as-hell Tonight’s the Night
. Again, he takes a heavier track and slows it down, actually making it better than the original. And this is much
better than the original, with Young’s harmonica taking it to a whole other level. 4/5
This is where things start to get really
good. “Pocahontas" is from 1979’s incredible Rust Never Sleeps
and features some of Young’s most bizarre lyrics …
And maybe Marlon Brando
Will be there by the fire
We'll sit and talk of Hollywood
And the good things there for hire
And the Astrodome and the first tepee
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me
Uh, whatever you say, Neil! The song is great, though, and most of the lyrics are actually about how American Indians got ***ed over, one of Young’s favorite subjects at the time. Here, the song isn’t terribly different from the original, but he still delivers a terrific performance. 4/5
“Stringman" might actually be the best song here and it was never actually released on a Neil Young album, even though he had written it decades before. Maybe the fact that it is so new to the listener is what makes it such a highlight, but I doubt it. It’s a terrific performance regardless of how familiar or unfamiliar it is.
“Stringman" is soft, quiet and full of emotion, with Young singing over a gorgeous piano part. I don’t really know what else to say other than that this is one of the finest songs Young ever wrote. It may never show up on a greatest hits compilation, but it would if I was asked for my two cents. So, Rhino, when you make a box set in like 5 years, give me a call, you jerks. 5/5
6. Like a Hurricane
Another definite highlight. On 1977’s underappreciated American Stars ‘n Bars
, “Like a Hurricane" was soaked in distortion and full of intensity, but he abandons that arrangement for obvious reasons here, instead playing the guitar part on a pump organ that sounds twice as old as Neil. That’s right, folks, he replaced an in-your-face guitar part with a pump organ. How can you not dig that?
“Like a Hurricane," for anyone who never heard the original, is one of Young’s better compositions, a sweet love song that isn’t at all over-the-top or cheesy. Dig the lyrics …
Once I thought I saw you
In a crowded hazy bar,
Dancing on the light
From star to star.
Far across the moonbeam
I know that's who you are,
I saw your brown eyes
Turning once to fire.
Powerful, eh? There’s no doubt in my mind that this song is a classic, and the unplugged version might even be better than the original. 5/5
7. The Needle and the Damage Done
After six songs, Young finally does a “hit" and he plays it unbelievably well. The original was performed live and in front of a crowd, so I guess it shouldn’t be a shock that this take is just as strong. Everybody knows this song, so I won’t go on and on, but its definitely a great performance. The crowd even claps along for a second, but then they realize that they sound stupid and stop. Great stuff. 4/5
Another one of Young’s career highlights is “Helpless," an excellent song from 1970’s Déjà Vu
. Déjà vu
is actually a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album, but “Helpless" is all Neil.
It might sound like I’m saying this a lot, but this is seriously one of Young’s finest songs. The melody is simple, but powerful, and the lyrics are fantastic. He also played this during The Band’s The Last Waltz
concert with Joni Mitchell singing backup and a hunk of cocaine literally hanging out of his nose, so you some of you might recognize it from that.
Anyway, this is an incredible
song and it sounds even better here. This is another track I would definitely include on a Neil Young greatest hits, though it will probably never actually be on one. 5/5
9. Harvest Moon
“Harvest Moon" pretty much sounds just like the original, but that’s not a bad thing at all. It was Young’s newest material at the time, so that’s really the only reason it sounds so similar to the version from the actual album. Anyway, it still sounds great, just nothing as mind-blowing as the last four or five tracks. 3.5/5
10. Transformer Man
Surprisingly, Young plays “Transformer Man," a track from 1983’s Trans
. At the time it was released, Trans
was viewed as the worst album of his career, and it really is pretty awful, but this is still a terrific performance. He takes a song that no one would probably ever think about wanting to hear live, strips it down and makes it one of the album’s most pleasant surprises. Go figure. 4/5
11. Unknown Legend
Again, this was new at the time, so its pretty much identical to the original. It’s a great song to begin with, though, so that doesn’t really bother me. Most of you will probably recognize the simple riff, and the lyrics are some of Young’s best …
She used to work in a diner
Never saw a woman look finer
I used to order just to watch
Her float across the floor
The crowd gets into this performance and you can her a bunch of old men randomly shouting, but it doesn’t take away from the song at all. For most of the set, the crowd kind of shuts up, so it’s actually kind of nice to hear a little excitement. Overall, this is a great performance of one of his better songs of the past 20 years. A definite highlight. 4.5/5
12. Look Out For My Love
A great song from 1978’s “Comes a Time," “Look Out For My Love" sounds just as good here as it did then. There’s really not too much else to say, this song rocks. It’s a fairly straightforward love song, but it has a little guitar breakdown where Neil goes nuts, so it still rules. 4/5
13. Long May You Run
Young decides to end the set with a one-two punch of happy songs and “Long May You Run" is the first. The original was on a 1976 album Young made with Stephen Stills called, believe or not, Long May You Run
, and this was easily that record’s strongest track. Here, he doesn’t change much, because it was an acoustic song to begin with, but you can almost hear him smiling as he delivers the lyrics. This is one of the more relaxed moments of the set, but there’s nothing wrong with that. 4/5
14. From Hank to Hendrix
It’s kind of a bummer that Young ends this timeless performance with a newer song that isn’t really all that great, but his delivery here is still fantastic. I usually just skip this song when I listen to Harvest Moon
, but it really is pretty damn good live. I think I just don’t like it as much because, whenever it comes on, it means the album is just about finished. 3.5/5
So, there you have it! I’m done ranting, I promise, but this really is a brilliant performance.
Giving a live album a perfect score might seem a bit strange, but this is one of three live albums EVER that I would give a 5/5. Please, if you like Young at all, check it out. Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York
might be more famous, but this is the best Unplugged album MTV ever released.
Check it out! You’ll come back on this site and thank me.