First Impressions: Carnegie Hall by Neil Young

Neil Young released the first installment of his “official bootleg series” last Friday and, as all things that era Neil, it’s well worth a few dozen listens (if not more). After the Gold Rush had been released a few months earlier and Harvest was on tap, with pretty much every song he wrote good and/or great.

To step back: The intent behind this particular endeavor is to bootleg the illicit releases of yore that we fans often treasure, but—when possible—upgrade the sound. Neil being Neil means that the first release in the bootleg series, however, is a performance that was never bootlegged. Go figure, huh?

On December 4th and 5th, 1970, he played an early (8:30pm) and late (12am) solo concert at the legendary Carnegie Hall in New York, two days after a six-show stint in Washington, DC, and a few weeks prior to a 23-show solo tour in January ’71. I should mention, I suppose, that the best performances from the DC concerts were released in 2013 as the Live at the Cellar Door album, while 2007’s Live at Massey Hall 1971 and this year’s Young Shakespeare capture special nights from January. One reason for so many recordings of that stretch of concerts: The idea of a live album was being tossed around.

The main difference between the December and January shows can be found in the set lists; the December concerts contained only a smattering of unreleased songs, while the January gigs reversed the ratio. The change in emphasis is hinted at here, actually, when Neil says after a few (very faint) requests following “Birds” that, “I, you know, could do all those songs, you know, but I have new songs I’m more interested in. I’ve outgrown some of those other songs.” Yet, as the below track list demonstrates, this show relied primarily on the tried-and-true; only five of the 23 songs were unknown to the audience at the time, though – if they didn’t buy 45s – “Sugar Mountain” may have been new to them, as well, as that was only released as a b-side. (For comparison’s sake, the Massey Hall concerts featured 10 new songs out of an 18-song set.)

I’m getting far afield, I know, so back on point: The midnight show at Carnegie Hall was recorded and released by bootleggers; I’d hazard a guess that it’s in the collections of most hardcore fans, be it on tape, vinyl or compact disc, though not necessarily under the Carnegie Hall title. In the old fogey days of the original Old Grey Cat website, in fact, it was one of my favorites of the many unofficial releases that passed across my desk—as evidenced by its inclusion on this “best of the unofficial canon” piece I wrote for the short-lived Da Boot ‘zine in late 1999. The two shows are similar, obviously, with the main difference being the placement of “Sugar Mountain,” which closed the first set during the early show, and the exclusion of “Dance, Dance, Dance.” Beyond that, he’s in the zone for both. 

There’s not much more to say. The performance and songs of the official Carnegie Hall bootleg are great and that the sound is topnotch; if you listen via headphones and close your eyes, you’ll swear you’re in the room. If you’re a fan, in other words, you’ll love it. In a way, it’s essentially a greatest hits-type review of Neil’s career up until that point in time, though both artist and audience weren’t aware of that fact. I know some folks decry his vocal abilities, but to my ears that high lonesome voice echoes aspects of my soul. As way of an example, I played Carnegie Hall during my eight hour-drive home after a few days of visiting family up north last week. Listening to the bittersweet odes about love, life and more while on the road was akin to hearing my childhood, young adulthood and early middle-age fade into the horizon behind me. “Don’t let it bring you down/it’s only castles burning,” indeed.

(The album can be streamed everywhere, including over at the Neil Young Archives, plus can be had in physical form.)

The track list:

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