First published in Pressplus1 (Online): http://www.pressplus1.com/music-reviews/dreamin-man-live-92-neil-young-sparse-and-illuminating-document-from-his-early-90s-revival.html
Ok I realize this is the third batch of reviews for Neil Young I have penned, but the guy keeps releasing these archive series discs a mile a minute... ok maybe every few months then. But this one, unlike the others, follows Neil on tour years after his younger prime. Neil had a resurgence no one saw coming in the 90s and this continued right into the middle part of the decade before creative juices wore off. Since then, Neil has offered quality with his releases but often has fallen short of the satisfaction craved by those who remember his latter day comeback let alone his 70s reign as the best, most fearless troubadour in rock. It's probably a bit overeager for anyone to expect a masterpiece out of the now-64 year old Canuck, but in the early 90s he had all his followers, critics amongst these, craving what came next. I reviewed the remasters of his first four albums a few weeks back and left off portraying Neil as a bonafide star, enjoying (but really not enjoying in the literla sense) his Harvest album at #1, the units flying off the shelves as rapidly as any album of the time not released by John Denver or the Osmonds (Note to all classicists of 20th Century Music: Supposed golden ages all have their own embarrassing public faves). After this, he took a trip through the gutter of rock life, feeling a heavy heart over the drug casualties going on around him. This gave us masterful works that were at first misunderstood: Time Fades Away (Live 1973 release), Tonight's the Night (recorded 1973, released 1975) and On the Beach (1974). A reformed Crazy Horse brought some grungy brightness back on Zuma (1975) then Neil paired with Stephen Stills for Long May You Run (1976), credited to the Stills-Young Band and much slicker than the usual fare for Neil in the mid-70s. He then veered into ragtag country-rock for the majority of American Stars n' Bars (1977), while the rest was a grab bag of material from various sessions and back to traditional folk and country on the underrated Comes a Time (1978). These albums between Harvest and the end of the 70s ranged from tremendous to decent, but mostly they were tremendous. Then Neil kept up his heavy workload as he turned toward another film project, his first being a homemade docu/fiction piece of junk called Journey Through the Past, released to a limited run in 1972. This new one, not released until 1983 as it turns out, was called Human Highway. But more importantly, it led Neil into an offshoot idea for a concert film. Recording his new tunes live resulted in the breathtaking rock signpost album Rust Never Sleeps (1979), his all-time greatest album in my estimation. A live concert film accompanied it and then a true to form live album capturing the 1978-79 tour came. The whole multimedia rush still couldn't distract from the fact he'd returned to Crazy Horse (for the electric sets and the side 2 of Rust) in a most enthralling way.
Rust summarized his entire career to that point and once again Young was lauded on a wide scale. But now reaching well past 30, the family man Neil emerged in the 80s as he tended to the needs of his second son Ben, a non-oral, spastic cerebral palsy sufferer. Personally, he was focused on improving his son's lot in life and getting involved in the well-being of all those afflicted by CP (his first son Zeke, by actress Carrie Snodgress, was born with a less severe form of it). Young scaled back his rock star life and though he would go back to touring, he was virtually inactive outside of sporadic studio work from 1979-81. This definitely harmed the creative process as a strict physiotherapy program with Ben, that ultimately proved fruitless, made it so that 1981's Re-ac-tor, one of only 2 albums with Crazy Horse in the decade, could only be worked on in the hours Neil had available in his home studio. Artistically, he has never been more unfocused than he was from 1980-88. Before Re-ac-tor came out, Neil became some sort of political commentator with Hawks & Doves, a short-running hodgepodge and another one where the sids were markedly, drastically unto themselves. But then again, Neil titled side 2 to be "Hawks" and side 1 to be "Doves," so perhaps that was the intention. The first side was made up of outtakes from 1976-78 work intended for an aborted album entitled Chrome Dreams and they were in line with the spooky acoustic side Nel procreated in his productive 70s. Side two was like the ragged country-rock of 3 years prior, only even more slapdash and this time with a lear intent and message. Neil began championing like a Republican congressman, highlighting the recession and its plight on the average, hard-working American. Despite his transplanted citizenship to the U.S. of A, Neil bled red, white and blue all over Hawks & Doves, alienating some and just confusing others. After Re-ac-tor failed to ignite any glowing reviews, Neil ended his 13-year association with Reprise to sign a big contract with Geffen Records. Right off the bat with Geffen, Neil overnight became Mr. Everything, intent on tackling any genre he felt like. First he tried to throw his hat in the ring of techno-pop by familiarizing himself with all the latest keyboard, computerized hijinks for 1982's Trans. Unlike other clearly mediocre records of that time, Trans was a "love it or hate it" record that, underneath its techno pall was a complex record about the communication barrier Neil was facing with his mute, disabled son. A few Hawaiin-inflected cuts made their way in there, but overall it was a decent foray into explaining robotic dimensions of the world and the breakdown in communicating between the handicapped and the able-bodied. Nice sentiments, but the record flopped and even though Neil toured behind the media-oriented theme and music, he quickly jettisoned that for a retro rockabilly pose.
This generated him touring around with a band he called the Shocking Pinks, which he disappeared into as some sort of act, not unlike the Beatles pretending to be Sgt. Pepper only this was in person. Neil greased his hair up in a pompadour and acted like he was at the malt shops again and it provided us all with an erratic, flawed album with some of the dumpiest digital production you're ever going to hear. That 1983 dud Everybody's Rockin' was in response to Geffen wanting more of a rock record this time out and he took it almost too literally on that one by going back to the sound of R&R in its infancy. It was to be quickly followed up by a country record, something Geffen had been clamouring for no doubt. Neil gave them a record based on the hardships under Reagan's America and called it Old Ways. It was rejected but a Nashville-recorded second gasp at it wasn't. But this official Old Ways from 1985, was let down by glitzy production and half-baked Cosmopolitan Nashville tunes. These all were like third-drawer Harvest dead ringers but Neil, as he was prone to do in the 80s, took the latest stylistic detour full throttle and began dressing like a renegade cowboy. He turned a bit right-wing and jingoistic in interviews and began extolling the virtues of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson (both of whom he paired up with and clearly was trying to emulate via cowboy hats, scarves, bandanas, jeans and cowboy boots). During this 1984-85 side route, he toured with a country outfit he assembled called the International Harvesters. But again, if anyone thought they had him pegged, he pulled the rug out from under with 1986's Landing on Water. This was a re-visiting of contemporary 80s sounds as it tried to incorporate Neil Young classic songwriting with thundering gated drums, airy keyboards and so forth. The production is a bit dated now of course, but not too bad at all. It's simply the poor writing that made it one of his 3 worst albums. Neil took all the fancy equipment to the road, finally hooking up with the band he'd been estranged from for 6 years in Crazy Horse. Drawing on the past as a source of inspiration, Neil decided to record new tracks in concert and then put them, minus the crowd noise, on his next album. Exactly the same process that begot Rust Never Sleeps. The end result was simply called Life. This 1987 release was promising, although it was no winning, enduring and deserving sequel to Rust. On the bright side, it was probably the best of his Geffen releases. The old garage spirit returned on a few tracks and Neil had a bit more venom, some political and some not, back in his arsenal. But Life was not properly capitalized on, at least not immediately. Neil let his Geffen deal run out, capping a roller coaster ride that saw his commercial and critical stature drop and his very own label sue him for performing music unbecoming to an artist with the sound and reputation of a Neil Young. The desperate move never did anything in court of course and sowed the seeds for a discontented Neil to leave David Geffen's company in 1988 and promptly arrive back on Reprise. But he just delivered them another genre exercise with the blues offering, This Note's for You.
The album is probably best remembered for its title track's music video, a satirical tirade directed by Jonathan Demme that skewered advertisting but mostly how pop artists were now being heavily relid upon to hock the consumer products. As a result of its blatant use of advertising in order to turn the cannons right back in the face of these scorned corporations, MTV banned the video. This firestorm of controversy soon found MTV cast as the villains, Neil as the bemused victim and the video a hot commodity that MTV made a big deal about showing just once and only once. As a token or gesture, they gave it their MTV Video Award for Best Video but it didn't change the fact that Neil was no fan of the station's dumbing down of rock. Despite all this, the album's sales were mediocre, a bad sign considering the publicity outbreak. On it, Neil brought his guitar histrionics back, but the horn charts were by and large dull and needless in his quest to cut a blues tribute. Anyway, there was just as much Memphis Soul and jazz experimentation as blues on the album and although it beat 80% of anything he did for Geffen, it was yet another shrugging of the shoulders from his faithful. But then, as Neil rediscovered his intensity for the guitar, something changed. With this newly minted blues ensemble, the Bluenotes, on tour with him through 1988, Neil showed signs of life in his newer compositions and a Japan-only EP called Eldorado in 1989 hinted at a return to glory. Then came Freedom, an assault on the senses that perfectly captured what had gone wrong in the 80s. Neil had found his powers to communicate his social conscience in a way his audience could understand and grasp. Plus, both his electric and acoustic sides were firing on ally cylinders. He fell in on common ground with emerging alternative rockers and bands that would in a few years time come to take over the rock landscape with grunge. The sheer force behind guitar cataclysms like "Don't Cry," "Rockin' in the Free World" and "Eldorado" told the beautiful story. Freedom was one of the 5 best albums of the year 1989 and with a roll established, Neil did his first truly proper and exciting full album with Crazy Horse since Zuma in 1990. Called Ragged Glory, it re-established rock credibility and taught everyone how guys in their mid-40s were nowhere near over the hill (thanks to folks like Neil and Springsteen, but primarily the Stones who broke the convention that rock bands must die off before they hit the 2 decade mark together, we have bands that stick together and still put on great shows and write relevant music into their 40s). Ragged Glory had exciting jam pieces alongside simple, rustic country-rock with the knobs turned to 11 to quote Nigel Tufnel. The tour that followed had the perfect backdrop of the Gulf War, allowing for Neil to get his anti-war stuff back on the table and off his chest. As of 1992, Neil was praised in the press by the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth and had regained his stature as an iconic singer-songwriter. 47-year old Neil Young was riding high as the 90s dawned and progressed further. Having become more political and hard-edged topically than ever, Neil endured as a significant voice in pop music, although he had not really enjoyed a smash hit album since Rust Never Sleeps. That changed as he decided to go softer, crafting his most quaint and peaceful album overall since Comes A Time.
In 1992, perhaps it was while reeling from tinnitus that inspired Neil to write softer, folkier, country-flavoured songs once again. You see, tinnitus is an ear condition where hearing becomes super sensitive after being exposed to constantly high decibels in volume. And Neil had just completed a 1991 tour with Crazy Horse called "Smell the Horse" where he challenged bands like Sonic Youth for sheer noise, distortion, feedback and dissonance. There had been some moments of calm here and there on 1989's Freedom and songs left on the shelves during the 80s but Neil had not crafted a whole LP of acoustic-based music since the Comes a Time and only Hawks & Doves had seen his acoustic folk side highlighted at all in the 80s. Ah, those 80s. Containing a spell of records at Geffen from 1981-87, it was a decade where Neil became lost as he couldn't satisfy his core audience anymore. After Rust Never Sleeps landed him back in the spotlight as one of rock's bright lights- although he had never really left, just never made a splash on the market to rival that of Harvest- he had withdrawn because of family and adversity, namely his son Ben being born with a severe, spastic form of cerebral palsy. Neil showed no focus or cohesive ideas as he followed leaving Reprise Records in 1981 with brief dips into techno/electronica (1982's Trans), retro rockabilly (1983's vacuous, digitally produced Everybody's Rockin'), mainstream Nashville country (Old Ways), modern tech-rock (1986's Landing on Water and partially on Life, 1987's Crazy Horse collaboration) and horn-driven blues (1988's This Note's for You). It took till 1989 for Neil to feel at home in the 80s and with Freedom, he knocked everyone who had written him off for a loop. His charting pull then began to improve itself after an 8 year period of falling fortunes. With Freedom, he created his strongest batch of tunes in years, dabbling more in folk again and writing harrowing hard rock that was highlighted by the anthemic "Rockin' in the Free World" bookending the album, first with a live acoustic version then an electric studio version that perfectly encapsulated all the writhing anger and the nascent, palpable sense of danger back in Neil Young's writing. Afterward, he experienced a renaissance that didn't let up until the late 90s and right away he reinvigorated his formerly strained relationship with Crazy Horse on their joyfully hard rocking Ragged Glory in 1990. Now Neil was back in the hip category, or the "What's Hot" bracket if you care for Us Magazine. He could be seen dressing in T-shirts, jeans, lumberjack jackets and sometimes leather but looking bad ass in general and convincing while doing so amidst a sea of younger bands trying to place themselves on a similar mantle. Not often does a legendary artist get praised by newer bands while also being vital contemporaries of them. But Neil was creating garage rock brilliance at the same time bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were singing is praises. Now commercially, it has always been the softer side of old Neiler that connected with the public and generated good sales. Harvest Moon has actually gone double platinum as of today, only the third album of his to do so (joining Harvest and After the Gold Rush), success that Neil had only experienced prior as part of the ultra popular megagroup CSNY.
The album itself has become one of his select chart and sale successes. Thematically, it finds Neil in a less introspective mood than its "prequel" Harvest, instead finding him a melancholy, contented man entering middle age feeling better than ever and still in love too. Often, that melancholy can become weary and boring. This is maybe the first indication that Neil mellowing with age could take the edge off him. He was no longer churning out moody love songs like "Pardon My Heart" or "Look Out for My Love," perhaps because he really was happy with his personal life. A cranky Neil meant prosperous things artistically, but that has changed as he's aged. On Harvest Moon, Neil still came up with wonderfully tuneful work however the disc begins to seriously lose steam after a primo opening of five lovely cuts. Neil enlisted the original Stray Gators lineup, a group of sidemen including Kenny Buttrey, Jack Nitszche, Tim Drummond, Spooner Oldham and Ben Keith that had been his group on Harvest. With their presence, Neil returned to that easy-going country/folk formula that struck gold (or platinum that is) 20 years earlier. Therefore, we got more pronounced use of harmonica, very few electric guitars (unless pedal steel counts), brushed drums, soothing piano and nothing as riveting rhythmically as something found on Ragged Glory or Freedom. All in all, because of some modest, rather restrained performances and production, Harvest Moon does not sizzle like its inspired 1972 predecessor, although both share the distinction of being his highest-selling albums, which may explain why they're often considered two of his most overrated. This is no mere product, but it's not the latter day masterpiece it's sometimes touted as. There's something missing, some gravitas that used to separate Neil from your average airy-fairy folkie. But what about this new archives release? Well like three prior ones, it's a snapshot of Neil performing acoustically on his own without anyone else. On this newest live document, we are exposed to live recordings of tracks entirely from that Harvest Moon record and they are seen from a different aspect. Consequently, I find some of these songs hold up even better than on record and sparkle in a new way. I suppose some rarely heard tracks would have been something momentous, but it's hard to argue with some of the fine music here. The song that the album bears the namesake of opens the disc and this version is a bit melancholy, but features Neil and Neil alone on his acoustic guitar so it's a one-man specialty. He wryly introduces "Dreamin' Man" by saying there's no literal meaning to be taken from the words. "Such a Woman" was a sappy, dull cut- much inferior to "Philadelphia," a similarly piano-based ballad written for Neil's friend Jonathan Demme's 1993 film of the same name. That was the studio version, right? Well it's both. Let's call a spade a spade; It's a hallmark card type of love song for his wife and the only possible improvement is by not having the schmaltzy orchestration present. Let it never be said that Neil can't write like Billy Joel or any other adult contemporary tunesmith. That said, "Such a Woman" is one of the more undynamic compositions of his career, in spite of the heavy love sentiment behind it. On the bright side, his vocals are tender and don't waver out of tune at all.
Neil manages to give "One of These Days" as much wistful beauty as the studio version does with a full band and some female backing support. Like the rest of the album it is derived from, it's nostalgic and rooted in family values, though this time Neil pledges to write a long letter to all the good friends he's known. Gee, somehow I doubt he ever got around to all that. "Harvest Moon" is as great as you remember it for the studio cut, complimented by Neil going it alone. What you find about his criminally underrated acoustic guitar playing is that he plays such intricate picking patterns and chordal structures that he doesn't need bass, drums and other accessories to flesh out a song. Since he writes almost all of his songs from this acoustic standpoint, it's no wonder the original guitar arrangements are the most central component. In several sequences, the picking connects the dots of the main melody. Indeed, like few guitarists we've heard in the rock lexicon, Neil Young can tag along his guitar comping to the vocal lines in nearly identical fashion. Harvest Moon was perhaps the most contented batch of love songs Neil ever wrote as he details the roads of life, the travails and moments of glory but ties them all into his current enjoyment. "You and Me" has the most explicitly romantic lyrics outside of "Such a Woman" but is a much better song that only loses points for sounding too much like a re-write of "Old Man." Not a bad way to copy yourself, mind you, and he throws in just enough guitar flourishes to merit minor praise. The best lyrical journey of Neil's newfound zeal for middle age comes on "From Hank to Hendrix." Now, any acoustic performance that absolutely touches a nerve is when Neil has for us something eloquently written, where he plays guitar fantastically in his unique trademark style (which involves hammer-ons, hammer-offs and strumming techniques that accentuate melodic ideas and riffs alike) while blowing that high, forlorn harmonica (with bends in the pitch thanks to an old bluesman trick of soaking the instrument in water). Add to that singing from that borderline whiny, but incredibly vivid and expressive voice and hardly anything can beat the awe his talent expresses to devotees, myself included. This is one of the better versions of "Hank to Hendrix" ever put out and it's swell to hear the audience cheering enthusiastically in between verses, well aware they were hearing more golden moments from the man who was already a legend by that point. The pastime tribute "Unknown Legend" looks at the back story of a woman near to Neil's heart, yes it's a literal story of his wife as a young girl herself. He harkens back to a day when she was a Hippie free spirit who rode motorcycles and worked as a waitress, a position that has a plain, feminine aesthetic of intrigue, common beauty and working class charm for Neil, a middle-class Canadian who has always been touched by the humbler, simpler walks of life. He is like a lot of good old salt of the Earth people we have in our Canadian small towns. Just take a listen to 1988's long unreleased "Ordinary People" for a bigger slice of that social spectrum Neil covers (18 minutes worth to be exact!).
Young's literary touch is a great one by rock writing standards, so it shouldn't be discounted that it's simply a facet of his genes as his father Scott was a well-known, famous sports journalist and novelist. One of the more modest, country pickin' delights from Harvest Moon was "Old King," a tribute to a beloved dog Neil had for years, performed ably on an eerily tuned down banjo. This is where Neil even manages bluegrass, although in his own madcap way. This lower key was a wise choice and "Old King" is the most improved track from studio to live comparison, as far as I see it. Though a soundalike to his acoustic "Cortez the Killer" arrangements, "Natural Beauty" is spine-tingling in its own way. While Neil has strayed in his political beliefs from liberal to conservative over the years, one thing he has always respected is the environment. In that sense, he is a green thumb and a dyed-in-the-wool conservationist. Neil eschews the wild progressions technology offers, unless of course they can be used to aid our natural world. Like any Californian Baby Boomer rocker, Neil doesn't have clear religious convictions and though he has never claimed to be an atheist, he feels nature is the world's true religion because it's a lovely mystery in itself, but one best enjoyed if treated fairly like it were a living, breathing person. The version of Harvest Moon was not far off from this solo offering, though it had vocal harmonies, marimbas and unnecessary nature sound effects. Neil weaves his beliefs on how the planet has been destroying itself around homilies about how it's bad because the environment should be respected and it's so darn great, don't ya know? Well he pours forth from his heart as the subject is obviously one racing through his mind, however sometimes the lines are redundant and lame (case in point the chorus's first line: "And natural beauty should be/Preserved, like a monument/To nature"). But it's still an arresting, cautionary folk composition that features several verses and even exceeds the 10 minutes of the studio cut by making it to 11.5 minutes. While not cluttered by the sound effects, Neil misses the backing vocals of Nicolette Larson and the atmospheric touches. His voice doesn't always manage the falsetto notes so great, but it's still a hauntingly, splendid listen. One of the other topical selections from Harvest Moon is "War of Man," an ominous, broad musing on war and how in the end "No one wins/It's a war of man." Not targeting one war in particular like on previous outings, Neil assails the devastation wrought by war though he would offer a nod of tribute to the men who fought in those conflicts with "Western Hero" in 1994. Not besting the studio version, this is still a worthy live performance of "War of Man" where Neil again delivers rich, intricate guitar work. There are moments where the Harvest Moon record is indeed the superior one for reference, but Dreamin Man: Live '92 is a pretty companion piece. A hardcore Young fan will cherish it and those who find Harvest and Harvest Moon to be their cup of tea should give it a shot, unless of course they can manage to listen to an album performed entirely solo. The fact it holds up so well and resists one-dimensionality brings me to my final verdict for this album: four out of five stars.