Review Summary: This is the album that should have come out between After the Gold Rush and Harvest...David Briggs, my producer, was adamant that this should be the record, but I was very excited about the takes we got on Harvest, and wanted Harvest out. -Neil Young
Live at Massey Hall is the latest from Neil Young, and the second in his long-awaited Archives Performance Series (though I’m still confused as to why it’s listed as Disc 3 on the sleeve). Following the high-profile ‘After The Gold Rush’ during his Journey Through The Past Tour, where Neil performed solo on acoustic guitar and on piano due to a back injury, the Massey Hall performance is nothing short of amazing. Neil Young was at the top of his game around this time, having gained huge following from both his CSN&Y work and his solo career with huge success imminent in the form of the laid-back Harvest in ’73.
Neil’s set includes mostly new (at the time) songs, with a handful of old fan-favorites mixed in and some unreleased material to sweeten things up (including two never-recorded works and two from the out-of-print ‘Time Fades Away’). The album begins with ‘On The Way Home’ from Buffalo Springfield’s third and final album, Last Time Around, and ‘Tell Me Why’ from ‘After The Gold Rush’. The audience applauds as Neil begins signing the familiar words, as they do throughout the album. The songs are two of the more upbeat numbers in the set, and they get things off to a jolly start, with heavier songs to follow.
After a bit of background explanation and fiddling around on the guitar, Neil launches into ‘Old Man’, a new song at the time to appear on Harvest. Here, it is presented solo on acoustic guitar, showing off Neil’s impressive vocal range and sounding more like a ballad about the horrors of becoming an elder than the warm country arrangement with banjo and slide guitar we’re all used to, and it’s cool. I’m actually torn between this version here and the classic Harvest version, which just goes to show how great it is.
Next are Journey Through The Past and Love In Mind, both soon to show up on the ill-fated ‘Time Fades Away’ album. It is my considered opinion that Neil wrote some of his saddest piano ballads during this time (consider ‘After The Gold Rush’ and ‘Birds’), and the two fall into the category. From a musical standpoint, the songs are both very similar to ‘After The Gold Rush’, and equally sad. Journey Thru The Past has nice pick-up conclusion to it, but Love In Mind just ends abruptly after a mere two minutes, leaving you wishing for something more. After this (shocker moment!), Neil drops his pick! If that wasn’t interesting enough, the next song, ‘Helpless’, certainly is. While it lacks backing vocals and the harmonica that brightened up the studio version and the Last Waltz version, this version presented here is still superb and by no means inferior to its counterparts.
One thing that gets kind of annoying on the album is how Neil Young likes to mumble about the songs he’s going to play while going through numerous tuning cycles and sometimes going as far as playing entire passages from the songs! Before the next song however, his insight is actually pretty interesting. He goes on to say that sometimes people think of their lives as on big movie, and that ‘A Man Needs A Maid/Heart of Gold’ is like a show tune from his movie. The two songs mesh together well (they’re both played as one tune on the piano) and it’s interesting to think how Heart of Gold, Neil Young’s most successful single, started out as part of a suite with A Man Needs A Maid. A Man Needs A Maid (and ‘There’s A World’ a few songs later), however, somewhat profits from the bare-bones arrangement here, in stark contrast to the heavily produced orchestral version on Harvest, and I think that I prefer this version.
An interesting treat here is the acoustic arrangement of ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’, a song that is known for it’s heavy, pounding drums and dual-guitar backing by Crazy Horse. Kind of like one of those Unplugged CDs, it’s interesting to hear how Neil reworked the song to fit the acoustic format, omitting the extended solos for one, but also to fit both guitar parts into one. Check this one out for sure, it’s great! Don’t Let It Bring You Down is a very dark song, one of the most menacing on the album at that, and not one of my favorites, but it’s still better than the studio version and it grows on you.
The next two songs are similar sounding, finger-picked songs that still contrast greatly. The first, ‘Bad Fog of Loneliness’, is an uplifting, short song about a man who manages to keep his chin up, even through the ‘bad fog on loneliness’ that shadows his life. Neil himself never recorded (or at least released) a studio version of this, so it’s a nice treat to have at least this one original song on the album. Next is the classic lament ‘The Needle and The Damage Done’ about Danny Whitten’s decent into a fatal heroin addiction. This song is easily in my top five favorite Neil Young songs of all time, and this version manages to even surpass the studio version! Neil’s voice is even more despairing in this live recording and the effect is stunning. A definite highlight of the album.
‘Ohio’ and ‘Down by The River’, to very interesting choices to play acoustic, follow surrounding ‘See The Sky About To Rain’ from “On The Beach”. The former two are presented here in bare-bones arrangements in contrast to their distortion-heavy counter-parts. ‘Ohio’ is even more haunting here with no backing vocals and the wordless section altered. ‘Down by the River’, a definite crowd-pleaser, fits well into the acoustic format as well, but you can’t help but miss the extended guitar solos. ‘See The Sky About To Rain’ is a great song, but I prefer the electric-piano version form On The Beach.
‘Dance Dance Dance’ is interesting, as Neil leads the audience into “making noise” as he chants the ditty. It’s a fun song, and another Neil never recorded himself. I’m guessing by now that Neil really likes girls dancing (ie: ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’ and ‘Harvest Moon’). The song is short, despite the 6 minute track time, about four minutes of which is the audience tying to evoke an encore. Neil delivers, and he returns to the stage for one more song, ‘I Am A Child’, the Buffalo Springfield classic. It’s a great performance, a perfect encore, and a magnificent end to the concert.
If you like acoustic Neil Young, this CD is just for you! If you’re a Harvest fanatic, this CD is the one to find! If you like rare Neil Young (ie: Unreleased songs and Time Fades Away stuff), this is where to look, and if you’re just a casual Neil Young fan, this is still a great CD to own! Check out the special DVD edition as well, if you can!