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article imageJourney Through the Past: Neil Young's 'Massey Hall' an essential and important recording

By Carpenter S. Newton     Apr 2, 2007 in Entertainment
Leave it to Neil Young to throw excitement into an otherwise bland start for new music in 2007 with a 36-year-old recording of a unique performance at Toronto's Massey Hall -- the first time Young had returned to his native Canada since making it big.
Carpenter Newton opining for Digital Journal -- For my tastes, it's been a poor year for music thus far. A dirt poor year. After a bountiful harvest of great new records from artists like Pearl Jam, My Morning Jacket, Sonic Youth, Neko Case, Rainer Maria, Cat Power, Built to Spill and Bob Dylan in 2006, I have bought exactly one album this year. It comes as no surprise to myself that the one 2007 album I've purchased comes from the man who schooled every musician half his age just last year by producing a group of songs more relevant and right on than I've heard since his last recording -- and Living With War was recorded in less than ten days, mind you -- Mr. Neil Young.
And it also comes as no surprise to myself that this new album, released March 13, is a recording of an event that happened 36 years ago.
At the time in 1971, Neil Young was recovering from a slipped disc back injury that rendered him unable to play an electric guitar. Young was 26 at the time, seemingly an age where back problems wouldn't yet exist, but after a bout with polio that almost killed him as a child, Young was particularly fragile.
In the five years previous, Young left his home country of Canada and became a founding member of the Buffalo Springfield. The Springfield were a critical success but internal problems split the band within two years. After making his exit, Young recorded two solo albums -- 1968's Neil Young and 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, featuring the debut of misfit backing band Crazy Horse. 1970 saw Young's breakthrough album, After the Gold Rush, a success aided by his participation in the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Neil Young returned to Canada on January 19, 1971, having found fame and fortune. While there, he made a stop at Toronto's Massey Hall and played two shows largely comprised of songs never before heard. Coming back to Toronto was like a homecoming for Young, who grew up a couple hours drive on the Trans Canada Highway away in the tiny rural community of Omemee, Ontario.
Shortly after Neil played Toronto, he took many of the new and unreleased songs played at Massey Hall, snuck off and recorded them in a Nashville studio over the span of a few days. The recordings ended up comprising Harvest, which is Young's biggest commercial hit and most identifiable essential recording.
But it almost didn't happen that way. While Young recovered from the back injury, his record company had scheduled a live album to come out. Young's producer, David Briggs, wanted to release the Massey Hall recordings instead of Harvest and fought Young adamantly to get his way. Young prevailed, and as result, Briggs disappeared for two years. The Massey Hall recordings he thought were incredible sat on a shelf for thirty-six years.
Sadly, Briggs never made it to see last month's Live at Massey Hall 1971 release. And Young, who considers the Massey Hall recordings the second part of his delectable upcoming Archive Series, now admits the Massey Hall tapes should have been released following After the Gold Rush.
Having been to Massey Hall myself, although 35 years later and for a completely different type of musical evening, I can attest to what a special venue it is. Massey Hall is one of North America's last great performing spaces; it's large but retains intimacy, thanks largely in part to its decor, which hasn't changed much since renovations in the 1930's. The hall offers stunningly clear sound and even the balcony seats are good. But most of all, Massey Hall affords an opportunity to enjoy a performance without being surrounded by busy-bodies, loud talkers, drunks, and in this day and age, kids with cell phones taking more pictures than the law should allow. The venue lends itself to quiet respect, which isn't to say that there can't be crowd participation, but it's done in such a way that your ear picks up who you paid to see and not the annoying singer that fate put behind you.
With that, I was excited from the moment I learned Young was finally going to release the Massey Hall recordings. A bootleg recording distributed years before the official release yielded an essential evening, a live recording of groundbreaking proportions. These were the first performances of songs loved and adored by millions of people -- from 'Old Man' to 'The Needle and the Damage Done' to the very first versions of 'Heart of Gold,' born out of the piano song 'A Man Needs A Maid.'
Appropriately, the set starts with 'On the Way Home,' Young's voice sailing over polite applause. Congratulations are in order for Neil, who reportedly put years... and years... and even more years into perfecting the audio quality for his much delayed Archives Series. The hard work shines as his idiosyncratic style of hammer-on guitar playing has full clarity, coupled with a soaring vocal that is too often muddied in other live Young recordings.
'Old Man,' a then-new song that Young wrote about an older gentleman living on the ranch he purchased in California, is the most definitive version I've ever heard, and I have been party to many playings. It's so good that it is shocking; the stark contrast of the dead silent Massey Hall against Young calmly belting this song out -- restrained yet vocal full of emotion.
After a couple of new songs, an obvious crowd favorite 'Helpless' is played, a surreal song about Young's hometown Omemee. Switching seamlessly from guitar to piano, Neil returns to the uncharted with 'A Man Needs A Maid,' a heavyweight song by any standards, but the highlight here is one of the very first rough drafts of 'Heart of Gold," which is tagged onto the end.
The usually long-winded 'Cowgirl in the Sand' is turned into a tight four-minute version for this solo performance, and is followed by the often covered 'Don't Let it Bring You Down.' Both showcase Young's ability to shorten songs to suit the performance, particularly on 'Cowgirl,' whose winding and incredible improvised electric guitar passages over Crazy Horse's beat make the song -- but Young does it fine justice just by himself.
'Bad Fog of Loneliness' is a song that Young wrote to perform on the Johnny Cash show, but as he explains before playing the tune, his appearance was rescheduled and he thought the song was too old to play. Ironically, the song Young did end up playing on Cash's show, 'The Needle and the Damage Done,' follows. The haunting song about heroin addiction gets an enthusiastic response and caused me to think, "I wonder how many of these people at Massey Hall thought this little ditty would be so famous?"
The crowd at Massey Hall remains largely silent during songs until Young encourages them to clap along during 'Dance Dance Dance,' a song Neil chose to do nothing with beyond live performances but would later become a Linda Ronstadt hit after being reworked. After leaving the stage briefly, he returns for a one song encore, playing 'I Am A Child,' a song recorded with the Buffalo Springfield.
A DVD version of Live at Massey Hall 1971 was also released. It, like the regular CD version, is a must-own document of music history. Some songs lacked video footage, but director Bernard Shakey saves the day with seamless film work that feels much more like an experimental art project rather than a standard concert film.
Most everybody I have encountered likes something about Neil Young, whether it be his adventures with Crazy Horse, his dips into country or syth-laden '80's fare or blues; perhaps the out-of-tune ditch trilogy or industrial '90's rock. Live at Massey Hall 1971 is something different from all of those experiments but the performance effectively ties together all of Neil's differing styles and interests: deep down, Neil Young has to go out and do the show by himself.
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