I finally got around to reading Neil Young's exceptional, non-linear, 2012 autobiography Waging Heavy Peace and it got me thinking about his recorded output of music. Moreover, it got me thinking about the presentation of not just his catalog, but all of my favorite recorded music, and why I've fallen in love with vinyl... again. There's something organic and soothing and dynamic about music that was captured on analog equipment and released on an organic format, i.e., vinyl. Knowing how committed Neil is to presenting his music in its highest audio state -- his short-lived Pono Music player was created to share the highest-resolution digital music available any where and his commitment to release a treasure trove of material from his archives sounding as best they could is not beyond admirable. Having finished his 502 page book, and having gotten back into vinyl again, I couldn't wait to hear some of his recently released archival content in analog.
Neil Young: Hitchhiker (Reprise)
Volume 2 of the Neil Young Archives Performance Series -- the Performance Series of the Neil Young Archives is composed of never before released live performances -- was originally recorded in 1976 but not released until August of 2017. It's an all acoustic album recorded live in the studio on August 11, 1976 at Indigo Studio's in Malibu, CA. The 10-track album contains some of Young's better known tunes plus two previously unreleased tracks. As was the case with most Neil's best albums, it was produced by Young's long-time studio collaborator David Briggs. This new release adds post production work by John Hanlon. He's produced his most recent works including Peace Trail, Earth, and The Monsanto Years.
The songs were recorded in a single session and the simplicity of just Neil's voice, occasional harmonica, and acoustic guitar capture the magic that Rick Rubin displayed on his Johnny Cash sessions. Naked and vulnerable. Many of the songs would not appear on vinyl until years later. "Hitchhiker," for example, did not officially appear until 2010's Le Noise and naturally sounds worlds apart from the original. Moreover, the acoustic version herein of "Powderfinger" is much tamer than the Crazy Horse rocking raggedness on Rust Never Sleeps.
Hitchhiker contains two previously unreleased tracks that have remained in the vaults since '76. The epic heartfelt ballad "Hawaii" is a personal tale of loss. Followed by "Give Me Strength" a mid-tempo love song Neil use to perform live in the mid-'70s. His mournful harmonica playing add a touch of emotional poignancy to the acoustic proceedings.
Neil Young: Roxy - Tonight's The Night Live (Reprise)
In 1973 Neil Young (guitar, piano, harmonica, vocals) along with Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums), Nils Lofgren (piano & guitar), and Ben Keith (pedal steel & slide guitar) recorded Tonight's The Night, an homage in sorts to losing his comrades Danny Whitten (Crazy Horse) and roadie Bruce Berry to heroin overdoses. After finishing the album (wouldn't be released for 2 more years), he decided to celebrate with a gig at the newly opened Roxy on Sunset Strip. Released in 2018 for the first time on 2-lps/3 glorious sides of vinyl, it's Neil and his Santa Monica Flyers in all of their loose and ragged glory. The playing is tight, the mood upbeat, the audience lucky to have witnessed a new set of music in its entirety with Neil at the height of his musical prowess. This album -- Volume 4 in the Performance Series -- doesn't have the heavy dark vibe of the studio release. Neil cracks jokes and asides between songs. "Welcome to Miami Beach," he states at the beginning of the set. The band adds an impromptu cover of "Roll Out The Barrel" before launching into "Mellow My Mind." "Tired Eyes" is especially poignant even after another more "welcome to Miami Beach" banter warning the audience that it is indeed "a sad song." Neil's electrical guitar playing is wonderfully mournful against Keith's pedal steel. My favorite track from Tonight's The Night, studio or live.
Neil Young & Stray Gators: Tuscaloosa (Reprise)
Released a few weeks ago, this is Volume 5 of the Neil Young Archives Performance Series and it is a must-own collection of killer tunes with his fab band the Stray Gators -- Tim Drummond on bass, Kenny Buttrey on drums, Jack Nitzche on piano, and Ben Keith on pedal steel & slide guitar). This archival set was recorded in February 1973 at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Besides songs from Time Fade Aways, the set list included five tunes from Harvest, the title tune from After The Gold Rush, and "Here We Are in the Years" from his debut Neil Young. According to Neil:
"Tuscaloosa is as close as Time Fades Away II that we'll get."
Indeed it is. There is an energy that just swings. His band swings with an ease that allows Neil to sing and play with ease and comfort, like a pair of your favorite jeans. Plus there's an edge that is missing from many of the studio versions of these tunes. Listen to that energy crackle on "New Mama" a tune from "Tonight's The Night." It's a much different vibe, too. "Don't Be Denied" closes this set and it's an extension of the band's prowess and Neil's command of his material.