Young Shakespeare LP
(Reprise Records/Warner Brothers)
One of the more interesting things that has happened since the CoVid pandemic basically put the entire North American live music schedule up on blocks for a while has been the outflow of live releases which have appeared – a cultural moment at which Neil Young has been the centre. Releases like Way Down In The Rust Bucket, Return To Greendale and Tuscaloosa have afforded fans the opportunity to really look into the angles from which Young has approached his music over the years (with Crazy Horse and Stray Gators), but Young Shakespeare represents an even deeper approach; captured live at Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut [not to be confused with Stratford, Ontario –ed] on January 22, 1971 – three days after Live at Massey Hall was committed to tape during the Journey Though The Past Tour – Young Shakespeare affords fans the opportunity to observe a relentlessly, unapologetically candid performance. Here, Young tells stories and laughs easily with his audience while also giving the impression of the show being a genuine and truly stolen moment of which no one could possibly have estimated the value when someone hit “Record” that night.
As soon as needle catches groove on the A-side of Young Shakespeare, the sense of intimacy is immediate and almost palpable – even before the wistful melody of “Tell Me Why” overtakes listeners. There, Neil Young effortlessly casts an intoxicating spell which factors in the ghosts of Searchers riding dark horses across lonely plains – and it’s really easy to take the hook that the song offers; there’s a romance and beauty which is completely impossible for the unaware to truly grasp until they experience it for themselves, but they won’t think twice after they’ve experienced it. For the (almost) two and a half minutes of the song’s runtime, listeners will just fall in and never once think of trying to escape from “Tell Me Why.”
The spell first cast by “Tell Me Why” doesn’t fade with the end of the song – in fact, it actually enriches the story of the old man who lives and works at Neil Young’s ranch, and proved to be the inspiration for the song which comes next in the album’s running, “Old Man.” As Young tells the story before he sings the song, there is an undeniable halt in the singer’s speech pattern; even back in the early days of his career, its obvious that while Young was already a great live performer, the singer wasn’t comfortable enough get in close and interact with his audience yet. Some critics might call that off-putting, but I call it hypnotic; even this early in the album’s running, there’s an intimacy which does not often come across as being captured at a live venue, but that it is a the fact of the matter make the listening experience even richer.
In contrast to the closeness of “Old Man,” “The Needle and The Damage Done” follows complete with some social discourse on hard drugs before Young slows “Ohio” down ever so slightly to make it even more affecting than its studio counterpart before almost seeming to concede to convention with a hoedown number complete with an army of handclaps in the form of “Dance Dance Dance” before spirally smoothly (and almost carelessly – if you consider the number of cuts per side on this album) through “Cowgirl In The Sand” and the medley of “A Man Needs a Maid” and “Heart Of Gold.” Now, particularly with the medley, it feels as though Neil Young is rushing to fit as much as possible into the running (it’s unlikely that’s true, but it feels as such). Even so, it’s possible to enjoy the A-side’s running for the fluid presentation of it; when the needle lifts, listeners will rush to flip the record over and keep it playing as quickly as possible.
As soon as listeners flip the record over to keep its vibe up, they’re greeted by “Journey Through The Past” (after which the tour was named) and by the novelty of Neil Young playing piano (which was uncommon, in 1971). The piano concession really marks the moment (it’s not terribly common for Young to play piano now but, back then, he could basically do whatever he wanted without being dismissed as self-indulgent because rock stars were still seen as new and special things, back in ’71), and informs the temperament of “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” – which follows it. Then as now, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” sparkles as truly special; then as now, the song feels like a harbinger of darkness on the horizon but plays as lush a ever, here, as well.
After “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” plays through, the side’s running seems to speed up (metaphorically) as both “Helpless” and “Down By The River” cast a sepia-tone romance into the album’s running, and then one last indulgence rings out in the group audience participation which marks “Sugar Mountain” and closes out the album. There’s no question that running with the end of the side is the height of simplicity; the series of songs plays through as carefully-selected and there’s no question that each is timeless, but there’s also no question that each plays like a series of performances which are at least as special as those which came on the classic Massey Hall live record. When they finally do run out here, those who have run front-to-back with Young Shakespeare will have no problem starting the whole thing over again, immediately; running front-to-back just feels that rewarding, in this case. [Bill Adams]
The Young Shakespeare LP is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.