Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968
Douglas Heselgrave's #18 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2009, Volume 16, #1
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Mon January 5, 2009, 02:30 PM CST
Lately, Neil Young has been feeling nostalgic. Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 is his third archival release in the last few years. Like its predecessors (Live at the Fillmore East and Live at Massey Hall), it is indispensable, at least for his diehard fans.
As most people are aware, Young has been working on an extensive boxed set of archival recordings for more than a decade now, and these three releases are merely teasers for the main act, which is still to come. The collection must be the most obsessive retrospective package ever to be assembled by a major artist: Even after years of tinkering, Young remains reluctant to finish the project and put it out for the world to see and hear. Each time is has been scheduled for release, Young has pulled the plug at the 11th hour in order to rearrange songs and alter both the format and presentation of his material. He appears to have settled on the idea of issuing his opus on BluRay, yet no one is holding his breath waiting for it to appear in 2009. Over the years, Archives, as it has come to be called, has taken on the mythical aura of albums such as Brian Wilson’s decades-delayed Smile and Guns ’N‘ Roses’ Chinese Democracy.
Whether or not Archives appears at all, Young’s decision to issue sneak previews of the mammoth set is a welcome concession to his fans. The most recent word from Young confirms that while Live at the Fillmore East and Live at Massey Hall will be included in the collection, Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 won’t. This, of course, makes the latter outing all the more crucial for those seeking glimpses into Young’s artistic development.
In many ways Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 is difficult to rate. As an historic document and as a portrait of an artist at the threshold of greatness, it is invaluable. As a musical experience, however, it is enjoyable, though not entirely revelatory. The portrait that emerges from this beautifully recorded collection is the journey of a young musician who is searching for his own style and voice. At the time of the concerts in question, Buffalo Springfield had disbanded, and Young was trying to find his feet as a solo act. Woodstock as well as his collaboration with Crosby, Stills, and Nash were a few years away, and in 1968, the singer, who sounded so assured in the show from 1971 that has been documented on Live at Massey Hall, was still finding his chops.
Nevertheless, even at this early date, Young’s voice is aching, pure, and fully formed. While listening to him deliver his material, it’s easy to marvel at how he has kept his range over the years. Four decades later, there is none of the dissipation that can be heard in the pipes of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and many of Young’s other contemporaries. Don’t expect brilliant guitar playing, though. Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 features a coffeehouse concert, and most of the accompaniments Young offers don’t go beyond unadorned, folk-guitar strumming. There is a scarcity of finger-picking, and the unconventional rhythmic patterns that Young later perfected are only present in their embryonic forms.
For longtime fans, the most enjoyable aspect of Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 may be the opportunity to hear Young’s work with Buffalo Springfield as he translates it for a solo acoustic format. The versions of Mr. Soul, Expecting to Fly, On the Way Home, and Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing are all delightful, and it is great to hear how Young delivers songs that were originally sung by Richie Furay. Others may enjoy the innocence and purity of the title track as well as The Loner. Young’s delicate, heartbreaking version of Birds is — in itself — worth the price of the disc.
The between-song "raps" that are scattered throughout Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 are intriguing. Perhaps, if he hadn’t become a successful musician, Young may have had a credible career doing standup comedy. Although this isn’t Young’s best effort, Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 is a charming, optimistic endeavor that offers a portrait of a simpler time, one that existed before corporations controlled pop music, when a young man armed only with a guitar and a notebook full of songs could take the stage and sing his heart out.
Of Further Interest...
Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 is available
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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