Thursday, November 12, 2015


It can't be overstated how important the live show is to Neil Young's career. While we tend to look at long-established artists by following their albums, with Young you have to follow his tours too, as they are almost always linked. The songs come, and some get taken on the road, some get developed in the studio. Sometimes entire tours are inspired by one set of tunes, but then develop into something else on the road, resulting in the completely different album a few months later.

The best Young tours have been the ones where he launches brand-new songs. Of course this can be much to the chagrin of those who want greatest hits when they go see him, but hindsight shows how lucky they were to have been there. How about the crowds who got to see Rust Never Sleeps debut months before the album in 1979? Or the solo shows post-After The Gold Rush, when Young started adding the Harvest numbers to the set?

That's what makes his on-going Archives releases so rewarding, as he's been going back to those important shows and tours from the past. This particular set is is one of the most interesting, because it sheds light on a period that saw Young climb from one of his lowest points back to favour, thanks to, of all things, a big blues band.

The '80's were Young's most controversial and unsuccessful. Signed by David Geffen to a huge contract, he immediately pissed off the boss, and most of the general public with the album Trans, a hugely-misunderstood album about technology. Geffen refused his next album, an all-country affair, and then sued him for making uncommercial music. Young then answered his demands for a rock album with just that, Everybody's Rockin', a 28-minute lark filled with rockabilly numbers. Then came the reworked country album Old Ways, which satisfied no-one. He went back to more conventional rock after that, but his audience had largely left him. No wonder he had the blues.

But things were looking up. His Geffen contract was up, and he was back at Reprise Records, his old home. He hit the road with a band he called The Blue Notes, after a club back in Winnipeg. It featured some old friends, such as Crazy Horse guitar player Frank Sampedro and long-time pedal steel foil Ben Keith, but they were out for a lark, playing keyboards and alto sax respectively. There was a whole bunch of other horn players, plus a heavy hitting new rhythm section, Chad Cromwell on drums and Rick Rosas on bass. This was going to be fun.

The shows started at the end of '87, almost completely full of new material. And it wasn't strictly blues either, more an amalgam of rock and blues, a good part of Young's signature sound, and lots of horns. It was good stuff too; the song This Note's For You became an unlikely hit a few months later upon release, with Young standing up against his fellow musicians taking big buck sponsorship from corporations, mocking Michael Jackson singing for soft drink money. It was the start of a new generation appreciating Young, and just a couple of years later, the same youngsters would be wearing plaid like Neil and praising him as the godfather of grunge.

Part-way through the tour, an album of these heavy blues numbers appeared, called This Note's For You. At first it was credited to Neil and the Blue Notes, but Harold Melvin's lawyers quickly pointed out he owned that name. Then the band became Ten Men Workin', but now Neil's calling it Blue Note Cafe for this release. What we get is 21 songs recorded over nine months of touring. And, we get to see the band, set list and sound develop into something even better.

As happens when Young gets on a roll, the songs keep coming and a new concept comes out of the old one. There were plenty of numbers that didn't make the This Note's For You album, fun blues numbers found here such as Doghouse (as in, I'm in the...). There were several about rocky relationships. One of the best Neil moments is heard here, not from a song, but from a brief spoken intro, where he asks the crowd, "Who here is having trouble at home? Let's talk about that awhile," before launching into Married Man. There are, as usual, better songs that weren't included on the album, including Don't Take Your Love Away From Me.

Most famously came a classic Young epic, a dark, wordy trip that would have fit nicely onto the On The Beach album, called Ordinary People. It had a bunch of verses, told a rich tale, and eventually did make it out on the Chrome Dreams II album in 2007. Here we get one of the life recordings of this major Young number which was still evolving at that time. You can pretty much figure this is why Young is now putting out these live albums at a steady rate, to give us these gems.

When the new songs arrived in 1988, there were more along the lines of Ordinary People, most importantly Crime In The City. It was another one that had lots of verses, a long narrative and a dark tale to tell. It would go through a lot of changes over the next year, but it signaled the next phase for Young. He kept Rosas and Cromwell, and pared down to a power trio called The Restless for a Far East tour. Then they set about making the Freedom album, with a much-altered Crime In The City, and massively-successful Rockin' in The Free World. But to see how he got there, you have to know about this tour.

It's not just historically important, it's a grand listen. Bad New Comes To Town, another song found nowhere else, is like a gunfighter ballad fused with jump blues. Then there's a 20-minute version of Tonight's The Night, one of the few old songs he played, completely re-arranged and deranged for the horns. Available as a 2-CD or 4-LP set, I'm loving the big box of albums, with a wonderfully-warm tone, and lively horns. And with all the unreleased numbers from this tour, it's like getting an album of new songs too.

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