Monday 30 July 2018

Neil Young: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

You can buy 'Here We Are In The Years - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Neil Young' in e-book form by clicking here

My very dearest readers. Well here we are at last, at the every end, with the final regular article of new material at Alan’s Album Archives after ten long years of blogging, 1247 posts and 500 in-depth reviews. We’ve laughed, loved, loathed, praised, pedandicated and pounced on anything not up to scratch, worked out what made albums tick and what made some of them turn out less than stellar. What a journey and one which I really am astonished to have completed after this being just one small idea on a time-filling jobcentre placement that somehow became an industry (well I do have a t-shirt anyway, it’s an industry to me!) It’s been one hell of a journey I couldn’t have done without you wherever you are around the world – and its only the end of this chapter. Over the past two months there have been Alan’s Album Archives books released on The Beach Boys and The Beatles (see our author page here at ) and there are another twenty-eight due out on the 1st of every month from here until the end of 2020 so keep your eyes out for them. We end though with a last look at the concerts and cover versions of Neil Young and one last joke about The Spice Girls:

If you are trapped in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with the Spice Girls, but there's only enough room for 5 people, who do you throw out? Yourself!
Till the next review (whenever one of the AAA bands does something new – probably around Christmas) take care and keep rocking!

I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book/website has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important. Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely! Neil of course has barely been off the road since he started going solo back in 1968 and in the fifty odd years since he’s given us nearly everything: solo acoustic shows, Crazy Horse tours with Roadeyes and overgrown rusty garages, big country music bands, a blues band with horns, heavy metal power trios, a rockabilly band dressed all in pink, the gloomy drunken ‘Tonight’s The Night’ tour and the ‘Transband’ where Neil and co would sing along to pre-recorded vocoder tracks operated by opening their mouths. What I find even more fascinating though is when Neil chooses to book a tour to promote an album and then bring in an entirely different bands to play it – sometimes he’ll play solo to promote a big Crazy Horse album, debut some new songs while jamming with Pearl Jam or use a power trio to perform a pristine and pretty record. To date there have been an endless supply of the two thousand-ish  shows Neil has now played out there, each one subtly or fascinatingly different as Neil constantly tweaks his live sets and sometimes revives old songs he hasn’t played in decades on a whim (while dropping other songs just as quickly). So far we have had six live albums (‘Time Fades Away’ is the weirdest made up of all new material, ‘Live Rust’ is the most rounded, Gulf War soundtrack ‘Weld’ the greatest and ‘Year Of The Horse’ the most under-rated and ‘Road Rock’ and ‘Earth’ the weakest) , a similar number of ‘archive’ sets (the early solo Neil shows from 1968 are a delight, even more than the shows that overshadowed it in the press like the famous Crazy Horse gig at the Filmore or Neil at Massey Hall in 1972, while ‘Bluenote Café’ and ‘A Treasure’ are under-rated gems too) and dozens more bootlegs (the 1989 acoustic tour plugging ‘Freedom’ being my personal favourite – when’s that coming out as part of the archives Neil?!?) Live shows have always been as integral to the Neil Young experience as the records – sadly while space precludes us from writing more if you’re interested Pete Long’s book ‘Ghosts On The Road’ was one of the first books to draw up a semi-complete collection of set-lists, a valuable reference manual in the days before the internet nicked it all!

1)   Where: The Bitter End, New York When: October 23rd 1968 Why: First Solo Gig Setlist: Unknown

The name of the venue sounds like a Crazy Horse song already, but back in 1968 the fans only knew Neil as the nervy guitarist dressed like an American Indian from the Buffalo Springfield (who played their last show on May 5th the same year). As one of the more obscure members of a fairly obscure band the early Neil Young tours didn’t get much of an audience – which is a shame as I still rate these early intimate shows as some of his best, with Springfield songs beautifully reworked into solo piano or acoustic guitar form and the tracks from Neil’s eponymous debut also sounding rather better in basic form without all that superfluous overdubbing. We don’t know specifically what songs Neil played at his first ever gig but I would imagine they were much like the ‘Sugar Mountain’ show, taped just eighteen days later. Oddly for an artist whose live career has been catalogued more than any other (Pink Floyd are the only really comparable band in the AAA canon) we don’t really know much about this live show at all – how well it was received and what the speeches between the songs were like (they tended to vary night to night too and rambled across anything from seconds to ten minutes concerning such topics as Neil’s previous careers – as a bookseller on drugs – how to write a ‘hit’ song back in the days before he’d written one and his increasingly bonkers ‘riders’ about what he wants onstage and back!)

2)  Where: Santa Monica Civic Auditorium When: March 28th 1970 Why: Danny Whitten’s Last Gig Setlist: ‘On The Way Home’ ‘I Am A Child’ [42] Everybody’s Alone [40] I Believe In You [38] Birds ‘Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing’ [15] The Loner ‘Helpless’ ‘Country Girl’ [25] Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere [66] Winterlong [27] Down By The River [160] Wonderin’ [80] Downtown [24] Cinnamon Girl [30] Cowgirl In The Sand

We could have gone with Crazy Horse’s first gig next (February 12th 1969 and again at ‘The Bitter End’, a mere three days after the solo Young show released on CD as ‘The Riverboat’) but that isn’t far off the official Horse archives set at the Filmore anyway. More poignant perhaps in the light of what will happen afterwards is the last Crazy Horse show with Danny Whitten in the band, the last time he will be considered with-it enough to still function. However even this early on (almost exactly at the midway point between ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ and ‘After The Goldrush’) Danny is failing and Neil is forced to extend the show with a lengthy opening acoustic set. Into this he throws lots of oddball songs he won’t often sing again including the rare outtake ‘Everybody’s Alone’, a non-CSNY or Springfield version of ‘On The Way Home’ and ‘Déjà vu’ song ‘Country Girl’ on acoustic guitar (a favourite of bootleggers that really deserves a proper release soon too). When Crazy Horse come out their setlist is a bit in freefall too: ‘Wonderin’ will later be revived as late as 1983 as a rockabilly number for The Shocking Pinks but is a country-rock number here, ‘Winterlong’ will be abandoned until being revived for ‘Decade’ in 1977 and the last song Danny will play on stage with Neil will be the stinging criss-crossing guitars of ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’. Unbearably poignant in retrospect is the song Neil and Danny wrote together, ‘Downtown’, about being on the run from the cops and taking drugs (Danny will die from an overdose on November 26th 1972). Though Crazy Horse will reconvene without Danny for some Summer 1971 shows and will play a major role on the 1973 ‘Tonight’s The Night’ tour they won’t play with Neil under their old name again until as late as December 7th 1975. Astonishingly fourteen tracks of this precious show (which begins at the start but fades out during ‘Winterlong’ will survive in bootleg, but only in very poor sound.

3)  Where: Topanga Corral, California When: August 11th 1973 Why: First Tonight’s The Night Tour Setlist: [76] Tonight’s The Night [81] Mellow My Mind [78] World On A String [77] Speakin’ Out [83] Albuquerque [84] New Mama [82] Roll Another Number [86] Tired Eyes [76] Tonight’s The Night [30] Cowgirl In The Sand

The audience have heard the rumours of course. Neil hasn’t been himself since his guitarist died and he’s gone a little crazy. That’s all over now though right? I mean we’ve had the bonkers soundtrack to an even more bonkers film (‘Journey Thru The Past’) and the tie-in album of a tour so miserable Neil couldn’t face re-cutting the songs in a studio (‘Time Fades Away’). ‘Harvest’ is still in the charts so I’m sure he’ll be back to making proper music again…’ The rotting old palm tree in the middle of the stage doesn’t bode well though. Nor does Neil when he walks on, barely recognisable with six-day stubble and a beer in his hand as he leans up to the microphone ‘welcome to Miami beach – it’s all cheaper than it looks’. Hmm, it looks mighty cheap to you and why is Miami Beach being replicated here in inland California?… The band look worse for wear too. The bassist keeps laughing and joking in between smoking. The drummer looks forlorn as if his mind is elsewhere. The guitarist is walking round as if he has lead-weights tied to his doc martin boots. Oh dear. The pianist you vaguely recognise from some music profile on Phil Spector though – surely that’s Jack Nitzsche and he should be good! Neil starts with a brand new song that somehow ambles into an angry and emotional rap. ‘You put my guitar in your arm, Bruce!’ Neil pleads, half drunk and reliving a painful memory. It takes him five minutes to get to the end of a simple story about a roadie who used to borrow Neil’s guitar and play ‘as real as the day is long’. Next is another new song. And then another. And another. And another four follow, all featuring images of death and desperation – from gang-murders that went wrong to a junkee mother strung out on cocaine to how the world on a string don’t mean a thing. In between songs Neil keeps asking the stunned audience to applaud the band members and keeps pointing towards a part of the stage kept empty, almost as if a ghost is there. By the end Neil tells us that he’s ‘now going to do a song you have all heard before’. Aha, it was all a test – we’re just getting the new songs out the way before the ‘greatest hits’ set (mental note: maybe don’t buy the new album just yet although hang on, Neil doesn’t have an album out yet and these songs will feel like a bad dream by the time they do appear on vinyl two years later). Only Neil starts up again with a story of how a roadie called Bruce borrowed his guitar and…aaaagh! So you get up and leave and only on your way out do you hear Neil finally doing a song you know, a sweet version of ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’ for the first time since March 28th 1970 when he sang it in such very different circumstances, the world at his feet. So ends the first of twenty-eight equally ramshackle shows played across Europe and America by The Santa Monica Flyers, a tour after which Neil will never quite be the same again.

4)  Where: Mountain View, California When: October 13th 1986 Why: First Bridge School Benefit Setlist: Unknown

Neil Young did so many great and noble things in his career – Live Aid, Farm Aid, more charity shows than anyone outside CSNY and a number of protests against everything from dead student protestors (four dead in Ohio) to Vietnam Veterans denied care. However perhaps his greatest gift to the world is the shows that he organised himself with wife Pegi’s help. The Bridge School was where their son Ben went to learn alongside other handicapped kids. It’s an annoying quirk of fate that the schools that need the most money spending on them (generally for children who don’t fit anywhere else) are almost always the most poorly funded. Pegi was shocked at the state of the school’s finances and urged her husband to do something, while taking over the committee books and taking over his contact book. Neil won’t play solo at this show but he did reunite with CSNY for only the second time in twelve years (with David Crosby out on parole from his drug sentence to play it). He was also instrumental in signing up the other acts who took part and often took part in their sets too – this first year included Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, old friend Nils Lofgren and comedian Robin Williams acted as compere. The shows brought in revenue of around a million dollars and was such a success that – after a year’s gap in 1987 – the shows were held every until 2016. In that time a whole host of acts performed including a great big long list of AAA names: Brian Wilson, The Grateful Dead, Simon and Garfunkel (a one-off reunion of theirs in 1993 ten years since their last!), The Who, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and even a long awaited Buffalo Springfield reunion in 2010. Pegi usually sang backup on Neil’s gigs but went solo in 2014 and fans could tell that something wasn’t quite right. Indeed, the Youngs announced their divorce shortly after the show that year and while the couple soldiered on for another two years, for the sake of the charity and their child, tensions were strained backstage and they decided to knock the charity on the head in 2017 with no further plans for any concerts as yet. This is such a shame – the shows were held for a great cause, always delivered extra surprises fans couldn’t get elsewhere and saw some lovely crossovers between acts who admired each other which couldn’t have possibly happened without someone like Neil as compere. To date one ‘best of’ disc, one ‘twenty-fith anniversary’ disc and one six disc box set of ‘Bridge School’ recordings have been released to raise further funds for the school (the single disc, officially titled ‘Vol 1’ though so far it’s the only one, was released in 1997 featuring Neil singing ‘I Am A Child’, the ‘25th Anniversary’ set contains Neil’s guestspot with REM on ‘Country Feedback’ and  a storming [220] ‘Crime In The City’ while the box set, officially also titled ‘Vol 1’ though so far it is again the only volume, was released in 2006 and includes four songs by CSN/Y alongside a medley of [13] ‘Sugar Mountain’ and [113] ‘Comes A Time’)

5)  Where: Coronation Hall, Omemee, Ontario When: December 1st 2017 Why: Homecoming Gig Setlist: [113] Comes A Time [96] Love Is A Rose [97] Long May You Run [57] Journey Thru The Past [385] I’m Glad I Found You [383] Tumbleweed [51] Old Man [249] Old King [225] Someday [52] There’s A World [**} Stand Tall [246] War Of Man [63] Don’t Be Denied ‘Helpless’ [49] Heart Of Gold [247] One Of These Days [239] Mother Earth [13] Sugar Mountain

Hopefully we don’t know what Neil’s final gig will be for a long time yet and this is the spot usually reserved for such a sombre occasion. If I know Neil he’s still going to be playing to the last day of his life somewhere. So instead we bring you a much happier occasion all round – Neil’s recent gig and the first time he ever played a show in the town where he was born, Canada’s Omemee (he moved to Winnipig as a toddler). Neil teased us for weeks referring to this special gig as being ‘from my hometown’ without actually telling us where till quite late on in the day (so many fans were expecting it to be in Winnipeg or Laurel Canyon or even The Broken Arrow ranch!) Omemee is quite small and even their biggest venue doesn’t hold many people, with only two hundred lucky fans able to go with invitations. The concert was however streamed for broadcast in Canada via TV and to the rest of the world via facebook. Rather sweetly proceeds from the concert (it was quite expensive) went to a local school – which just happened to be named after Neil’s father Scott who went there himself as a boy in the days before he was a famous author. The show is a good one by recent Neil standards, with The Promise Of The Real much better on the stage than they are on record and with an intriguing collection of songs old and new (including a surprise throwback to 2014’s ‘Storytone’, the first hearing of the autobiographical [63] ‘Don’t Be Denied’ in many a long year and the biggest surprise of the night is the 1976 outtake (released on ‘Decade’) [96] ‘Love Is A Rose’. This was a busy time for Neil as, making the most of the extra publicity, on this exact same day he also launched his online version of ‘The Archives’ project and released his new record ‘The Visitor’ (though typically he only performs one solitary song from that album at this gig that was meant to be promoting it!)

Sometimes when artists pick up that musical baton they pay tribute to their heroes by covering their favourite songs. Here are three covers that we consider to be amongst the very best out of the ones we've heard (and no we haven't heard them all - do you know how many AAA albums out there are out there even without adding cover songs as well?!) I’ve spent much of this book discussing songs with the idea that no one else except Neil would ever think of these songs and it seems odder than most to hear his songs performed in a different voice, with that familiar quiver or sense of vulnerability where they can often sound quite different. I’m surprised then by quite how many cover songs there are out there (three hundred ish? More than our AAA average of one hundred that’s for sure, behind perhaps only The Beatles and Stones out of our thirty acts) and not just that but the breadth. With some AAA bands finding ten different songs covered by other people is a struggle – with Neil easily one hundred songs have been covered by somebody. This pile is admittedly helped by two of the better tribute albums out there: ‘The Bridge’ from 1989 is a bonkers one that caught the end crest of the heavy metal wave and the beginning of the ‘various artists sing the hits of…’ craze and features such delights as Bongwater ‘Mr Soul’, Sonic Youth treating [149] ‘Computer Age’ as a synth-less rock and roll song and the unlikely sound of Nick Cave singing ‘Helpless’; 1994 and 2007 saw two volumes of ‘Borrowed Tunes’, the first of which is the best cleverly split into ‘hey hey my my’ acoustic and ‘my my hey hey’ electric discs with Randy Bachman’s take on [15] ‘The Loner’ easily the standout in this crowd, while Volume II is most notable for Neil’s half-sister Astrid’s take on [257] ‘Sleeps With Angels’. Money from both volumes went to Neil and Pegi’s Bridge Street School charity; ‘Cinnamon Girls’ is a female-only tribute album from 2008 oddly sticks to Neil’s earliest most misogynistic era from the early 1970s where Kristin Hersh’s impressive sex-reversal on [109] ‘Like A Hurricane’ impresses most; finally there’s also ‘MusiCares’ from 2016 which is the weakest set despite featuring the biggest names like Elvis Costello (doing [28] ‘The Losing End’ of all songs), Norah Jones and James Taylor. CSN even appear to sing ‘Human Highway’ on what may well prove to be their last studio recording. We have however skipped all of these for three other comparative rarities you might like:

1)  [18] The Old Laughing Lady (Stereophonics, B-side to ‘I Wouldn’t Believe Your Radio’ 1999)

One of the most altered Neil Young arrangements for the ‘Unplugged’ set in 1993 was his take on this orchestral epic from his first album. Performed as a semi-fast acoustic rocker it sounded mighty good if not up to the majesty of the strings. Stereophonics, one of the better Britpop bands around (why do they always get a bad press? Kelly Jones’ voice is one of rock and roll’s secret weapons!) loved the Unplugged set and started doing this song in their act, later taping a studio version for the release on one of their lesser singles. I remember being in sixth form college where many of my classmates assumed this song filled with metaphors and cupboards and death was a new original and wondered why it wasn’t the A-side; they weren’t too pleased when I pointed out it was a song from fifteen years before I was born (and yes I did have an anorak over my school uniform). The Stereophonics version is subtly different to Neil’s many because this band can’t do anything that quietly (despite the fact that their ballads are often their best material), the throaty roar giving away that this song is meant to be about an underlying death and loss. The line ‘laddddeeeeeeaaaaahhhh’ is either the greatest or worst thing about this cover depending on your taste and while nowhere close to the original (or even Neil’s Unplugged version) this is a fine band covering a fine song and doing it proud.

2)  [125] Pocahontas (Johnny Cash, ‘Unearthed’, 2003)

Effectively the ‘outtakes’ from the ‘American’ series Johnny Cash was recording with Rick Rubin up until his death, in many cases I prefer this stash that was kept back to what was released on the records proper. While Rubin messed up on the intended CSN ‘Covers’ album of 2014 he did wonders for The Man In Black, giving him dangerous music to sing again with bare-bones arrangements that showed off the strain in his aging voice. After a career of being a brave tough guy, its deeply moving to hear Johnny as a brave fragile old man. Rubin was a particular Neil Young fan and actually provided Johnny with two covers – [49] ‘Heart Of Gold’ is the better known (it’s from a follow-up outtakes set ‘American Rarities’ of 2010) but I prefer this cover, where Johnny sings Neil’s comical tale of American Indians as if it’s one of his tragedies, the line ‘they might have left some babies lying on the ground’ even more of a tearjerker (Johnny’s greatest album is surely his most controversial, ‘Bitter Tears: Ballads Of The American Indian’, a brave move to release such anti-white man songs in 1963 and which might well have inspired Neil’s original). Johnny’s deep growl is moving indeed but better still is the arrangement which includes a creepy violin effect playing the guitar riff and some occasional piano that fleets in and out of this song as if it’s playing in slow motion. The slower stately tempo too really suits this already gorgeous song.

3)  [51] Old Man (Wailin’ Jennys, ‘Forty Days’, 2004)

We end our entire thirty-part ‘cover songs’ series with a rare track free with Mojo Magazine that was actually rather good. Neil may well know this band of three female country singers – they were formed in a Winnipeg music ship that Neil knew well (Sled Dog Music) when three separate solo singers were asked how they’d feel about performing one or two songs together and they named themselves as a pun on their biggest musical influence and Neil’s old collaborator Waylon Jennings. ‘Old Man’ is a rare cover song in their set but it sounds as if it could have been an original, perfectly cast for three part harmonies (what a shame CSNY didn’t often do this song as a group performance like this, it would have been lovely!) and with some lovely bright acoustic playing by Carla Luft but no bass or drums to distract us. This song sounds like a much purer distillation of the song and nudges it further down the country road than a rock road. Though I really miss the harmonica and the pedal steel I’m really impressed with this song, a highlight of their debut album.

A now complete list of Neil Young and related articles at Alan’s Album Archives:

'Neil Young' (1968)

'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' (1969)

‘After The Goldrush’ (1970)

'Harvest' (1972)

'Time Fades Away' (1973)

'On The Beach' (1974)

'Zuma' (1975)

'American Stars 'n' Bars' (1977)

'Comes A Time' (1978)

'Rust Never Sleeps' (1979)

'Hawks and Doves' (1980)

'RelAclTor' (1981)

'Trans' (1982)

'Everybody's Rockin' (1983)

'Old Ways' (1985)

‘Landing On Water’ (1986)

‘This Note’s For You’ (1988)

'Freedom' (1988)

'Ragged Glory' (1990)

'Weld' (1991)

'Harvest Moon' (1992)

'Sleeps With Angels' (1993)

'Mirror Ball' (1995)

‘Silver and Gold’ (2000)

‘Are You Passionate?’ (2002)

'Greendale' (2003)

‘Prairie Wind’(2005)

‘Living With War’ (2006)

‘Chrome Dreams II’ (2007)

'Fork In The Road' (2009)

'Le Noise' (2011)

'A Treasure' (1986/2012)

'Storytone' (2014)

'The Monsanto Years' (2015)

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part One 1968-1972

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part Two 1977-2016

Surviving TV Clips 1970-2016

Neil Essay: Will To Love – Spiritualism and The Unseen In Neil’s Music

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