Neil Young is unquestionably one of the greatest artists of the rock era, but his vast back catalogue of work -- both released and unreleased material -- has been criminally neglected. Thankfully, that seems to be slowly changing.
This week, Young reaches into his vault and pulls out a piece of essential rock history with the release of “Live at Massey Hall 1971” on CD and DVD. The second in a planned series of live archive discs, “Live at Massey Hall 1971” -- like the first volume, “Live at the Fillmore East” with Crazy Horse -- is an archive piece of extraordinary quality and importance. Young’s appearance at Toronto’s Massey Hall in 1971 represented a triumphant return to his native Canada. As part of Buffalo Springfield, a solo artist, and a part-time member of the super-group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Neil Young had become a major star. He took the stage alone at Massey, without his celebrity cohorts or his ragged backing-band Crazy Horse, and he kept the audience rapt through 17 stripped down songs. What is captured on tape is a legendary artist at his peak.
The show was recorded by Young’s longtime producer and collaborator David Briggs, who, after hearing the tape, urged Young to release it as his next album. Young refused and went on to record the legendary “Harvest” LP. As great as “Harvest” turned out to be, he should have listened to Briggs. The Massey Hall show is the real “Harvest”: Neil Young on stage alone, sounding heartbroken and aching, his odd quaver of a voice floating above his acoustic guitar and piano like a forlorn specter.
It’s surreal to hear Young introduce classics like “Old Man,” “A Man Needs a Maid,” “Heart of Gold” and “The Needle and the Damage Done” as new songs. These are so familiar now they seem to have always been a part of music history, but at the time they were fresh and new, and Young performed them with conviction and passion.
Although much of the show focuses on songs that would end up on “Harvest,” other material is featured as well. The performance of “Helpless” -- freed from the messy background vocals of the CSNY original -- is a revelation. As a listener, you can feel the connection between Young and the audience as he reminisces about “a town in North Ontario.” The lonesome, haunting version of “See the Sky About to Rain” is miles better than the studio version that appeared a few years later on “On the Beach.”
Other high points include the melancholy “Bad Fog of Loneliness” and the familiar “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” one of several songs performed from his “After the Gold Rush” album. Young also delivers dead-on versions of two Crazy Horse standards, “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down by the River”. He translates these 10-minute rambling rock warhorses into succinct and stark acoustic numbers. Classic protest song “Ohio” is also performed, and it sounds as relevant as ever.
The sound quality on “Live at Massey Hall 1971” is superb. Listening to the CD is like being transported back 36 years to a time when Neil Young was still a relatively new artist -- only 26 years old -- and was just entering into his most creative period. Young would ping-pong between acoustic-based folk rock and hard-edged garage rock his entire career, but this disc represents the best of Young’s acoustic side. It blows away his wheezy and dreary MTV Unplugged performance from the mid-90s.
These days Neil Young is seen primarily as an uncompromising elder-statesman of rock or as aging idealist who still cares enough to belt out an album of off-the-cuff anti-war anthems. “Live at Massey Hall 1971” reminds us of why Young became such an icon in the first place. It’s essential Neil Young. Based on the first two volumes of Young’s Live Archive series, Neil Young fans may be in for some exciting surprises as Young continues to dish out treasures from his vault.