Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968
Douglas Heselgrave's #18 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2008, Volume 15, #12
Written by John Metzger
Fri December 12, 2008, 06:30 AM CST
There is no doubt that Neil Young is one of rock ’n‘ roll’s most eccentric artists. Throughout his career, the path that he has paved for himself has taken a surprising number of erratic twists and sharp turns. Not only has Young routinely shifted, almost as if on a whim, from the bone-crushing, metallic thunder of his work with Crazy Horse to the melancholy-drenched mood of his solo endeavors, but he also has dabbled in R&B and sung an entire outing through a vocoder. Although there have been moments when his individual moves have been perplexing, he nonetheless has managed to transform more than 40 years of music-making into an incredibly singular statement, one that strangely enough sounds perfectly normal in retrospect.
When Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 was committed to tape, Young stood poised at what was, perhaps, the most critical juncture of his career. His gig with Buffalo Springfield had come to an end, and he hadn’t yet proved that he could stand on his own. When he ventured to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for a pair of concerts in November 1968, he was determined to test material from his upcoming solo debut on his unsuspecting fans. This process has since become Young’s de facto method for unveiling new songs. Yet, considering how audiences today clamor for the hits and grow disconcertingly agitated with long strings of unfamiliar fare, it is remarkably refreshing to hear how silent the crowd remained throughout his set.
Although the endeavor was made by culling selections from each of Young’s Michigan shows, it’s hard to imagine that either of them was dramatically different from what is presented on Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968. Young’s nerves clearly were frazzled when he took the stage before a crowd that was larger than anyone had anticipated. Accompanying himself with only an acoustic guitar, he spent long moments between selections telling meandering tales that bought him time to settle his jitters and gain the confidence to continue. Consequently, enormous portions of Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 are devoted to Young’s humorous, self-deprecating anecdotes. Yet, instead of growing tedious, his rambling, stream-of-consciousness ruminations inevitably mutate to become as integral to the recording as they were to his performances.
For all of its strengths, Young’s solo debut featured arrangements that were, perhaps, more complicated than they needed to be. In fact, Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 makes the case that Young’s subsequent eponymous endeavor would have benefited significantly from the stripped-down approach that he later explored on After the Gold Rush. It’s telling, too, that one of the emotional highlights of the concerts was Birds, a song that eventually would surface on the latter effort. Yet, as the rendition featured here demonstrates, it already was in full flight.
As Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 plays, it becomes apparent how deftly Young used his jovial banter from the stage not just to disarm his audience, but also to frame the fragile mournfulness of his intimately personal commentaries on love and life. Mixing new material with refined distillations of the songs that he had recorded with Buffalo Springfield, Young constructed sets that were dominated by brokenhearted laments and odes to lost innocence. With each tune, he found the tenuous balance between disillusion and optimism that, time and again, would come to mark the finest moments of his career.
There is no doubt that Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 finds Young at the beginning of a journey that, four decades later, is still moving forward. Yet, as the album burns with a quiet intensity that is as unassuming as it is unshakeable, it also testifies to the fact that when Young took the stage in Michigan, his artistic vision was better formed than, perhaps, even he might have admitted at the time.
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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