Friday, January 9, 2009

Reviews: Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain- Live At Canterbury House 1968"

In 1968, there was plenty going on in rock music that one could pay attention to. In an ever-increasing world of singers and musicians branching out to writing their own tunes, a movement spearheaded by the Beatles as everyone knows, nobody could blame you if you overlooked a certain timid, inward-looking 22-year old Canadian with an awkward, high-pitched singing voice whose previous distinction had been being the lead (? Not with Stephen Stills around) guitarist of short-lived transplanted Californian folk-rockers Buffalo Springfield. Of course, as time has proven, this was an influential powerhouse group of talent that spawned not one, or even two, but three substantial rock careers: Neil Young, the subject of this review, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay who founded the mildly successful alt-country pioneers Poco.

But in 1968, the band lay in tatters as bad management, bad luck and big egos led to the dissolution of the group in July, a mere 26 months after it had formed in 1966 when Neil Young arrived in a hearse from Ontario with bassist (oft absent due to a myriad of drug possession charges that threatened his U.S. citizenship) the late great Bruce Palmer. Young himself had been the main individual showing signs he was unhappy with the group, having quit in mid-1967 only to return through careful coaxing. Perhaps Neil's miserable experience with epilepsy during this time played a part, but there seemed no hope of relations being patched up anyway. The seeds had been sown. So, in summer 1968 Neil had to adjust to a career out on his own. He was allowed to leave Atlantic, who had signed Buffalo Springfield, to join the Warner Bros. label Reprise Records. 

Of course, Young would return to Atlantic as 1/4 of a major act, being added to the Crosby, Stills and Nash trio in June 1969, this despite Stills and him having already clashed frequently over musical direction and a variety of other matters while in Buffalo Springfield. This move would help gain Neil his first big time exposure. Before his time in the CSNY supergroup, he had released 2 solo works, one classic with the ragged garage rockers Crazy Horse and one slightly unsure debut. Rock critics had been supportive of the Springfield, most finding Neil the true wild card talent in the band. Before 1972, it never seemed remotely possible that Young would build the greatest legend, influence and success of anyone in the group but that was the case as time proved. Young had written a wide array of styles musically, but managed to make most sound somehow dark, twisted and unique, like a Prairie Canadian Bob Dylan. From the blistering rock of "Mr Soul" to the wistful folk of "I Am a Child" to the grand psychedelia of "Broken Arrow" to the chamber music-cum-pop opus of "Expecting to Fly," Neil could seemingly tackle anything his ambitious desires led him to.

Whereas Furay was a warm singer and modest songwriter with an affinity for country and Stills a macho, confident, some might say brash centerpiece of the group with the insistent, throaty rock voice, Young was the dreaming mystic, intrigued by writing bitter, imaginative songs that seemed rife with desperation (the anguish of "Burned," the dark foreboding of "Down to the Wire" or the depressed disillusion of "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing") . Sometimes he wrote unconventional angles for pop songs about romantic affairs, for instance the frank diatribe in "Flying on the Ground is Wrong" (from the LP Buffalo Springfield), telling a girl he just can't get with her if she doesn't understand or approve of his drug-taking. "Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say it?" off the same album, is one of the more conventional songs he would write for a few years, as the early Neil Young seemed intent on heavy, poetic lyrics, usually about the downcast side of life. He also demonstrated what would be a lifelong empathy for and interest in the ways of the Native American through songs such as "Broken Arrow"as well as his concert garb of buckskin fringe jackets. 

Young also showed his feelings on natural preservation ("Here We Are in the Years") in this period, another cause he would take up in earnest during his pro-active 80s and 90s days. He was never shunned creatively in the Springfield since only two others in the five-piece group were prolific writers anyway. Many of his songs made Buffalo Springfield's three albums, but he still had a ton sitting on the shelf and by mid-1968, once Buffalo Springfield had splintered, he pursued the recording of his first album. The first LP, Neil Young, has not stood up as a great record, sometimes unfairly characterized as an inauspicious, flat debut. In reality, it finds Young in a shell as he sings without much gusto or the care for emotive phrasing he would later pick up. Perhaps it was a reaction to his inexperience as a frontman or the fact producer and longtime future collaborator David Briggs littered the release with an almost obscene amount of overdubs (prompting Young to later refer to his self-titled debut as "Overdub City"). 

The overdubs were not unlike his epics for Buffalo Springfield, but those epics seemed to work better in the scenario of being a band member. On his first solo album, the Neiler is surrounded by unsuitable settings like female choruses, jazzy arrangements and woodwinds. They seem more production and musical tools of their time than organic to the music. This can't fully be blamed on Briggs, or Neil's heavily influential friend, arranger and side musician Jack Nitszche. It can be blamed partially on Neil's feeling out process, not being entirely courageous enough to take the reigns production-wise. Besides, he himself later attempted many epics with classical flourishes, especially with Harvest's "A Man Needs a Maid" and "There's a World." As for his premiere solo album, Young detested the initial release's mix when it came out in November of '68, mere days after this performance at Ann Arbor, Michigan's Canterbury House. Two months later, a new mix was put out in place of the old and that version has remained the standard. 

Most of the songs from the latest in his Archive releases, Sugar Mountain- Live At Canterbury House 1968, are ones that made their way onto his first LP or ones that had been featured on Springfield albums beforehand. Young had first touched upon the enormous task of collecting his unreleased work in a series of boxed sets back in the mid-1980s, when his career was arguably at its lowest ebb. At the time, an archives collection would have been a good reminder of his body of work and its depth of greatness, in the face of duds like Landing on Water, Old Ways and Everybody's Rockin', unholy trinity of 80s lost-in-the-wilderness excursion. This collection, working title Archives Be Damned, has been in the works for years but has seen many tentative release dates fall through. According to Neil himself, something would always come up or his creative muse carried him off in different directions. The release has been delayed and put off by Young's busy life so often that makes Chinese Democracy's gestation look like the 14 hour session the Fab Four did to cut Please Please Me! 

But apparently, the first volume is now finalized to be released February 24. This is for hardcore enthusiasts obviously, as Archives, Vol. 1: 1963-72 promises to be gargantuan and sprawling. To fit in the music as well as video and booklet features, the first volume is going to be a fortune to purchase, consisting of a gaudy 8 discs (plus various other goodies and many different configurations rumoured to be made available). The 8 discs will also be Blue Ray DVD discs because Young felt they were finally the proper technology he had been waiting for before unleashing the first volume. The boxed set is the main course after the appetizers of Live at the Fillmore East 1970, Live at Massey Hall 1971, this reviewed disc and a proposed release called Toast. Toast is apparently an avant-garde work done with Crazy Horse that promises to have some of the eclectic aura of some of Neil's old dalliances with instrumentals, feedback and sonic guitar noise. Cut in 2001 and originally intended to be music for the art exhibit of a friend, Toast will certainly be a slice of the experimental side of Neil. Live at the Canterbury House 1968, however, is just another historical snapshot capturing the infancy of his solo career. 

While Volume one of the archives goes deeper and further back, this Live At Canterbury House 1968 is still an interesting listen for hardcore enthusiasts. But unlike the two live ones, this will not fascinate people on the same musical level. Maybe the raw, lumbering power of Crazy Horse or the wonderful acoustics of Massey Hall played large roles, but the two previous archive samplers were a bit more engaging. While the previous two archive releases served as snapshots too, that does not mean that this set cannot be deemed inferior to the previous two because to be honest, it is. Simply put, you will find better live versions of many of these songs elsewhere. Across his two live archive releases as well as 1979's Live Rust, the double disc Weld from 1991, 1993's MTV Unplugged, 1997's Year of the Horse, 2000's Road Rock Vol. 1 and the 2006 film Heart of Gold's soundtrack, superior versions can be found although of this list, while I recommend them all for hardcore Neil fans, I would say if you just like him well enough, then stick with Live Rust and Weld in order to best absorb the stage work of Neil.

I will point out that 1973's Time Fades Away was recorded live. But with 8 previously unreleased songs, it is almost a studio album captured on stage. Time Fades Away is worth searching for if you like the rawer, disgruntled side of Neil circa 1972-73. But be prepared to search because it has never been formally released on CD and probably won't be for a long time, supposedly due to Neil's bad memories of the Harvest tour and the dissatisfactory, muddy sound of the recordings. Interestingly though, Neil's first album had more favourable reviews than his now-classic garage effort Everybody Knows This is Nowhere from mid-1969. It was seen that the lengthy, jam-oriented hard rock of the Crazy Horse debut was tedious, uncommercial and odd in comparison to the conventional self-titled release. Of course now the opinion has reversed and the same can be said for Time Fades Away, mostly panned in the wake of the pretty, mellow #1 success of Harvest. 

This Canterbury House set became famous when Neil's coming-of-age "Sugar Mountain" was used as a B-side for both "The Loner" and "Cinammon Girl" (double sided sweets!). It finally made an LP with Neil's triple-disc retrospective Decade in 1977 and has long been a concert standard of his acoustic sets. This new archive disc is not without its charms of course. The negatives of this album are basically its slight redundancy (not much found here that we haven't heard elsewhere), recording quality (captured with some hiss accompaniment on a simple two-track machine) and because some of the performances are underwhelming. The weaker tracks themselves are usually marred by the same thing: simple arrangements with Neil's rather timid, unprojected, meek delivery at the forefront. Plus, where some tunes used a harmonica before, Neil has discarded it here. Which is a shame, because his harmonica work is usually a powerful and essential component to his acoustic performances but it had yet to become a trademark by 1968. Plus, rarely has his voice been captured in such a non-gripping manner as the Canterbury album. And his always squeaky vocal register is even worse, as if he could only get a hold of tight-binding underwear at the time. 

Do I speak harshly of Neil's much maligned vocals? Not quite, because I find Neil's unattractive voice to be one of the best unattractive voices rock ever produced. Perhaps even more effective than Dylan's, I dare say. Some trained singers generate less pure emotion than Neil, despite their clearly superior skills. Neil is one of the few singers who can warble out of tune and off key and still move the listener. In recent years, he has lost a bit of the upper register so he tends to sound melancholy, worn out and rather clumsy when he tries to hit those notes. He can still holler out the grungey tunes with authority, mind you. And his voice was much more confident on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. He had confidence in his songs and singing in 1970 and while this sometimes led him to go shrill, whiney and over-the-top, it was easier on the ears than his pre-1969 vocals. It's no wonder the other members of the Springfield would put a clamp on the quantity of vocals Neil was allowed, even on a few of his own compositions. The softer the material, the more precocious and irritating the vocals, I have discovered with early compositions of Mr. Young. 

The fragile weakness of the vocals is a bit off-putting for this reviewer. When Neil sings these numbers like a frightened pup or a boyish introvert on the verge of needing anti-depressants, it makes you less unforgiving toward critics and music fans who decry the annoyance of his vocals. They'd normally be wrong, but they're not far off when it comes to some recordings, this Canterbury set included. However, the in-between song banter that Neil peppers this album with would prove otherwise, as he seems relaxed, self-deprecating and candid. Perhaps they're the most illuminating thing here, as we find Neil is looking forward rather than backward and seems genuinely tickled to be branching out into his own career. He provides quirky, rambling dialogue that shows that the guy has always been a lovable flake, even before fame and fortune. He can be found discussing songwriting while prophetically claiming he will let his hair "grow and grow and grow" (a serious pledge when one looks back on photos of him in 1971-72 or so).

In other onstage "raps," he makes light of the fact the concert is being recorded, talks of his previous employment at a bookstore (which was not a lie actually, and Neil is careful to point out that he does not lie on stage), mentions the "things" he used to be, talks about the song "Classical Gas," calls out for requests and points out the tedium of tuning in front of a crowd of "thousands of teenyboppers." Of the actual songs, only a few deliver the way this Neil Young devotee expected. The solo acoustic guitar approach, with apparently no harmonica in sight which is very rare to hear on any Neil album, provides a different glimpse on songs otherwise known for their electric bend, like "Mr. Soul," which becomes a brooding blues as opposed to the fuzzy, frenzied delivery of the Stonesy original. "Expecting to Fly," in the first and obly version captured live on an official Young release, is a minor delight to hear as Neil manages to hold up despite the solo setting, which is much simpler than the studio version that padded his vocals with producer Jack Nitzche's echoey string and drum additions (proving the former Spector session man had some of the Wall of Sound affinity in him too). 

The morose "The Last Trip to Tulsa" is not much of a song to begin with, but here it has more offhand charm than the deadly serious studio version. Not his worst song, but certainly one of his handful of overblown, failed epics (along with "Such a Woman" and "There's a World"). The song has a confused, overly complex batch of lyrics and meanders a Dylan-esque 8.5 minutes. But those who have heard it prior to the Canterbury rendition already knew what to expect on this cut. Moving on, this set has "The Loner," though played in a lower key yet it tends to plod and makes for easy listening, a fallow reading in the face of the mesmerizing psychedelic rock of the studio version. It's interesting to hear tunes like "The Loner," that were set to come out on his solo debut, in such stripped down forms. Sometimes the differences are neat, sometimes disappointing. There are quiet moments on Neil Young, but nothing as contemplative and whisper quiet like the ones housed on this new release. 

"Birds," which would not find a home until 1970's After the Gold Rush, is not as glossy here as what was ultimately put out. But this Canterbury version, no doubt an earlier glimpse but not exactly a different arrangement, is inferior. The After the Gold Rush version has pristine harmonizing and a delicate piano part that is not equalled by Neil's solo strumming and meek voice found here. For a piece of Neil history, we get to hear him dabble with an early, incomplete version of "Winterlong," recorded a few times until a 1974 version got release on Decade. Then, Neil segues into the self-conscious "Out of My Mind," not a terribly impressive composition anyway, but a very personal reflection on the horrors of rock stardom Neil experienced upon Buffalo Springfield's formation that made their self-titled debut. It also encapsulated how he was feeling with the grim potential of violent seizures looming over him in the 1966-68 period. Slowing and stripping it down brings a bit more life to it, but that's not too difficult considering "Out of My Mind" was one of the more butchered productions on a badly produced album in 1966's Buffalo Springfield. 

"If I Could Have Her Tonight" is decent, but it lacks the zip it had with a full compliment of musicians on Neil Young. Of course, the number that gives this album its name, "Sugar Mountain," sticks out as the highlight. A rather melancholy, plaintive view on the passing of youth, all the more relevant since Neil wrote it at 18, "Sugar Mountain" inspired joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game." While neither song ranks amongst the top 10 in the canons of either Canadian great, they do share similar messages and became very popular with the Boomer listening audience. "Sugar Mountain" is not as child-like as "The Circle Game," but rather more a reflection on the changes adolescence brings. "I've Been Waiting for You" works in a brooding, moody way like "Mr. Soul," but it is a hell of a song to begin with so it's hard to go wrong with that. And here, Neil doesn't. "Nowadays Clancy Can't Sing" seems less weighty and dour than the recorded version and perhaps is the only thing here that betters its studio version. The studio rendition of "Clancy" is no spring chicken either, let me say. 

Neil comes out of his shell to deliver a good vocal performance on "Clancy," as if he suddently realizes that raising the volume of his voice won't bother anyone. After all, they came to watch him and if they expected a rather quaint volume level, too bad. And the chord arrangement used here, as well as the alternate key, seem to bring out the gold much better than on the Buffalo Springfield version. "The Old Laughing Lady" does not fall much short of the recorded version, and perhaps deserves a fair shake considering it doesn't segue into questionable extended instrumental sections like the original. Then again, who would think of trying that armed with one guitar, without the female backups and the strings? Not Neil obviously, and good thing too. "Broken Arrow" continues the album's strong conclusion as it is refreshing to hear this tune without the dated 1967 sound clips spliced in, not to mention the sound effects and production techniques. Hearing it in such a naked setting is the special listening experience that not all tracks from this album can boast of.

"I Am a Child" is not exactly a highlight here the way it is of the Massey Hall set or on Live Rust, but experience, wisdom and routine probably turned Neil into the troubadour we know today. Hearing him in 1968 before that persona was developed is surely interesting, but for relevancy and for the fact it sheds light on the stage persona of Mr. Young, this is a worthy purchase (or download?) for Neil's hardcore fans and not just some excuse for another Neil Young official bootleg. The mentioned weaknesses of the album only fall on the Neil Young of 1968, since there's no reason to begrudge the man for releasing it for fans today. Why sit on a nice musical artifact of your past if you don't have to? This Live At Canterbury House 1968 is one I would classify as a "approach with caution" for your average Neil lover (unless you're mad about his early career output), a "skip it" for his minor fans and obviously a "don't bother" for those who just want the cream of the crop... you know, the fan who snoozes at a concert through new stuff or "Tonight's the Night" but goes apeshit for "Rockin' in the Free World" or "Heart of Gold." 

Personally, I have found much worthier albums in the live canon, officially releases ones of course, for Neil. But redundant as it may be, it still beats out Road Rock and Year of the Horse, two "Why bother?" standard concert fare releases of the latter day Godfather of Grunge that are probably his worst live discs... unless you consider the musique concrete of 1991's Arc to be a live one (For background: It was a 35 minute collage entirely consisting of concert feedback from the Smell the Horse tour that Weld was derived from, which comes off like some homage to Lou Reed's fingernails on a chalkboard opus, or misunderstood masterpiece depending on who you ask, Metal Machine Music... don't ask, don't ask. Just consult the internet for sound clips!). This is no prime choice album from the vast archives of Neil Young. It's not as impressive as the previous two archive teasers, but it can't be knocked for trying to capture a pivotal stage of Neil Young's tremendous career as a giant of rock and roll music.
Rating: B (or for you star rating fans, ***1/2 out of five, 6.5 out of 10)

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