It’s not often that regret is uttered from the rebellious mouth of maverick Neil Young, but his new release Live at Massey Hall 1971 mustered just a bit. “This is the album that should have come out between After the Gold Rush and Harvest,” the Bridge School founder said recently. “My producer was adamant that this should be the record. As I listen to this today, I can see why.”
This repudiation of the beloved Harvest album may seem outrageous, but it’s definitely warranted. The solo Toronto set–the yin to Live at Fillmore East‘s blistering yang–is a stunning, intimate portrait of the icon as a young Canuck on the cusp of becoming a household name (and the CSNY ingredient to truly watch). Armed with just a guitar, piano and his emotive, nasally whine, Young moves effortlessly through early favorites like “Helpless,” whose first line receives cheers from the hometown crowd, reminding us Bay Area residents of our mere surrogacy.
Although the legend seems not to have changed much in 36 years–from the ecological concerns of “Love in Mind” to his photographer scolding after a straightforward “Tell Me Why”–the then 25-year-old seems slightly less grizzled than his modern-day reputation. He actually responds to a call for “Down by the River” with a devastating off-the-cuff acoustic version and closes his set with a rollicking, clap-along “Dance Dance Dance.” This is helped in no small part by his palpable comfort in front of his countrymen, to whom Young confides throughout the show, most poignantly expressing simple joy at being back home before launching into a tragically fresh “Ohio.”
Of course, the not-yet-released classics are Massey Hall highlights, with the Harvest songs deposed from their ivory towers and revitalized through their infantile context. It’s thrilling to hear “The Needle and the Damage Done” without applause during the opening riff but including his sad lament on colleagues who’d recently succumbed to heroin addiction. And no better is the spirit of excavation symbolized than waiting through the ever-bland “A Man Needs a Maid” to bask in a few bars of the rare piano version of “Heart of Gold.”
Though not as pristine in quality as the audio disc, the included DVD vastly improves upon Fillmore East‘s awkward pans of still photos by tastefully combining grainy live footage with stock footage and Young’s home videos, which include footage of the actual “Old Man.” While a recent brush with mortality may sadly be the reason for this massive retrospective undertaking, it’s comforting that the Neil Young archives are being helmed by Young himself–not posthumously. Consider the anticipation for the box set this fall officially on high.