First Impressions: Young Shakespeare by Neil Young

High lonesome vocals. Those three words best describe Neil Young’s latest archival delight, Young Shakespeare. It captures a sterling solo performance by the now-legendary singer-songwriter, who at the time was fresh from the success of After the Gold Rush, which cracked the Top 10, and its first single, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” which crept into the Top 40 – though only two songs from that now-classic album are performed. At 25 years of age, his voice is still pure, sure and, when necessary, as forlorn as his lyrics. He’s more than just a troubadour doing his thing; he’s a poet who also sings.

Young Shakespeare, it should be noted, hails from Neil’s appearance at the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, Conn., on January 22nd, where he played both an early and late show; the inclusion of “Sugar Mountain” suggests the recording comes from the early, as it wasn’t played in the late, though the album could well feature songs from both. It’s similar to the Live at Massey Hall 1971 set released in 2007, as that concert took place three days earlier and Neil didn’t upend his set list in between, but unlike Massey Hall this isn’t the entire concert. If we assume the recording is from the early show, the set – according to Sugar Mountain, at least – is thus:

On the Way Home/Tell Me Why/Old Man/Journey Through the Past/Cowgirl in the Sand/Love in Mind/A Man Needs a Maid-Heart of Gold/Don’t Let It Bring You Down/Sugar Mountain/Helpless/The Needle and the Damage Done/Ohio/See the Sky About to Rain/Down by the River/Dance, Dance, Dance

(The late show, for those curious, swapped out “Sugar Mountain” for “There’s a World,” but was otherwise the same.)

Why the decision to excise some songs and re-order the remainder, who knows? That said, I have no complaints. It’s a thoroughly mesmerizing listen. Also, a live album need not present a show in its entirety, just stand on its own – which Young Shakespeare certainly does. One odd result of the edits, however, is this: The track list leans even heavier on Harvest material than the original concert. 

In any event, the piano medley of “A Man Needs a Maid” (with a slightly different lyric) and “Heart of Gold” is especially sublime. Were the songs originally meant to be a medley? (It’s a question I’ve pondered since first hearing them linked as one.) Or did he play them back to back like that for expediency’s sake? Either/or, within a few days he split them at the seams and, in early February, recorded the stand-alone “Heart of Gold” in a Nashville studio – “A Man Needs a Maid” wouldn’t be laid down until March, following Neil’s appearance at Royal Festival Hall in London. The introduction to “A Man Needs a Maid” is informative: It came about while he was confined to bed after injuring his back; his pals would come over, wreck the house and then leave – and he wasn’t capable of cleaning up. 

The sound, as evidenced by the above clips, is beyond reproach; you can easily imagine yourself somewhere in the hall, head back, eyes closed and ears wide open. One additional highlight: the turn-your-frown-upside-down ode “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” which he dedicates to Teddy Kennedy…

To borrow a quote from the original bard, William Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts…” Which is to say, if you like Neil circa his first “classic” period (aka the early 1970s), definitely give this a go. It’s a master class on what a “singer/songwriter” should be.

As I’m still awaiting my physical copy from the Greedy Hand store, here’s the track list courtesy of the Neil Young Archives:

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