Live at Massey Hall
January 19, 1971
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2007, Volume 14, #4
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
I must confess: I donít think itís conceivable for an old Canadian hippie such as me to review Neil Youngís latest concert set Live at Massey Hall with any sense of objectivity. Should I talk about the songs? Theyíre all classics that are presented in their newest and freshest glory. The years have left them imprinted so deeply into my DNA that theyíve been woven into the core of my being. In the same way that itís impossible for me to assess clearly the beauty and intelligence of my own children, itís a Herculean task for me to extricate this music from the mythology Iíve built up around it over the past 30 years. I just canít experience it in the same fashion as the lucky audience at Torontoís Massey Hall did on a winterís day in 1971.
Having left Canada in 1965 to pursue a career south of the border, Youngís first solo Canadian tour in 1971 was a triumphant homecoming that may make a more jaded American or European listener scratch his or her head and wonder what all the fuss was about. "Sure, Neil Young is a great performer, but there are so many of them, arenít there?" a skeptic might say. Canada, however, is a funny place. Huge in terms of geography, but small in population, we Canadians always have been humble to a fault, and we routinely have second-guessed our greatest cultural treasures. The 1960s exodus to the States and Europe of our most gifted talents ó The Band, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Leonard Cohen amongst them ó attests to this national inferiority complex. It often has been said that Canadians wait until the rest of the world has voiced its approval before we embrace our own artists, and by the time Young came to Toronto in 1971, our love affair with all things Neil was officially sanctioned.
Worlds apart from his incendiary 1969 and 1970 performances with Crosby, Stills, and Nash as well as with Crazy Horse, the shows that Young gave during his 1971 tour of Canada played a large part in forming the classic image that today resides so fondly in the publicís imagination. Confident and brimming with creative fire, one moment, fragile, delicate, and unassuming, the next, the songs sound as if they are being delivered around a campfire or in oneís own living room. The playing is sometimes tentative and exploratory; at other moments, it is full of fire and intensity. The delivery is often unsure; the lyrics are like Zen koans ó brief and to the point, having not yet achieved their iconic status. The voice is so impossibly pure and, well, so young-sounding, that (to borrow a phrase) itís not only love that can break your heart. The intimacy and immediacy of these songs, many of them performed here before they even were recorded, brought tears to my eyes more than once. The versions of Old Man and The Needle and the Damage Done that are featured on Live at Massey Hall are set up beautifully by Young, with the back story to each songís creation adding resonance to those tunes that have become overly familiar as the years have passed. To be given the chance to hear embryonic, classics-in-the-making ó like a piano suite of Heart of Gold and A Man Needs a Maid ó is nothing short of a revelation.
Neil Young routinely has trotted out his new material on tour ó sometimes to the consternation of his captive audience. Stuffed within Live at Massey Hall are a few songs ó such as Bad Fog of Loneliness, Journey through the Past, and an early rendition of See the Sky About to Rain ó that ought to satisfy his most hardcore fans. Rounding out the set ó and making it impossible to raise a complaint ó are Buffalo Springfield favorites such as On the Way Home as well as acoustic takes on Cowgirl in the Sand and the always-welcome Down by the River.
Like I said at the outset, however, Iím biased. I havenít loved every note Young has played over the past 30 years, but Live at Massey Hall captures the Neil of my youth ó the Neil of summer car trips to the country when every time Heart of Gold came on the radio, the kids in the back seat would yell, "Turn it up!" I could go on for an eternity with anecdotes about the soundtrack that Young has provided for so many of the scenes in my life. The vans that have broken down by the side of the highway and the trip to hear him and Patti Smith at the Gorge during my honeymoon in 1996 barely scratch the surface of the companionship that his music has provided. But you donít want to hear about that. You want to hear this disc, and in the words of my 10-year-old self, "Turn it up!"
Live at Massey Hall: January 19, 1971 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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