Posts Tagged ‘Bootlegs’

In preparation for my forthcoming review of Neil’s latest archival release, Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live, I’ve been digging through my own archives with a few reviews from the original Old Grey Cat website. (For the first entry, go here.) This one is for a bootleg CD called Sunset Strip on a label called Rough Kut Trax – and an appropriate label name it is. As I explain in the review below, the sound is decidedly rough…

(The review itself dates from sometime in the late ’90s. I can’t narrow it down any more than that, unfortunately – the files themselves are dated from when I archived the website in 2005, not when I wrote them.)

Track List: 9/22/1973: Tonight’s the Night, Mellow My Mind, World on a String, Speakin’ Out, Albuquerque, New Mama, Roll Another Number, Tired Eyes, Tonight’s the Night, The Losing End 3/17/1973: Tell Me Why, L.A., Lookout Joe, Don’t Be Denied, Yonder Stands the Sinner, Last Dance

The Review: “Don’t fuck around. Get drunk…I’m actually staying very straight for this show because I don’t want to get too loose, you know.” In a nutshell, that’s 1973, one of the – if not the – decisive years in Neil’s career. Neil definitely had a yin-yang thang going…sloppy renditions of great songs, right? Maybe. Maybe not. In fact, the Old Grey Cat is of the opinion that the “sloppy” playing actually reinforces the songs. It’s part of a larger whole. There’s more to the picture than meets the eye, in other words, and in this instance that means “mood.”

Taken from what’s said to be the late show on Sept. 22, 1973, the third night of a four-night, eight-show run at the then-brand spanking new Roxy Theater in Los Angeles, it presents Neil’s “Miami Beach” vision in its nascence, he and the Santa Monica Flyers performing a solid and oft-inspiring set that, like Rock ‘n’ Roll Can Never Die, is stronger than the Tonight’s the Night acetate found on the Broken Arrow boot. One high: Nils Lofgren’s solo on “Speakin’ Out.” Another: the mellow “New Mama,” which is part and parcel of the yin-yang theme that permeates the entire Tonight’s the Night acetate, tour and eventual album. Life and death go hand-in-hand, you know.

Unfortunately, as a CD, Sunset Strip does suffer from some serious flaws. First and foremost, the sound is not what most neophytes would term acceptable. At times, the music crackles and threatens to break up – well, it does break up but, still, it’s listenable…maybe only for someone like me who thrives on Tonight’s the Night-tour sets, though. Let’s put it this way: I’ve heard much worse recordings from that tour and enjoyed them, too. Another major flaw: You know the sound some cassette players make when you fast-forward a tape? That squeaky, squished sound that radiates from the speakers like a high-pitched wheeze? You’ll hear that between some of the songs. Neil’s patter isn’t presented in its entirety, in other words, thus stealing from the impact of the performance. In fact, the choppy and incompetent editing is what most mars the CD.

As far as the bonus material, it’s taken from the Time Fades Away tour – March 17, 1973 in Seattle, to be exact, which featured the debut of “Yonder Stands the Sinner.” The performance here of that classic should be familiar, as it’s the same performance which was used for the Time Fades Away album. Soundwise, there is an improvement – but not a drastic one.

This disc is really for those seeking to complement other boots that document the same era. 

Grade: (C+)

My thoughts circa tonight (4/26/2018): I’m either a tad generous above regarding sound quality or my standards have substantially increased. I plugged the CD into the CD player and…wow. Just wow. The sound is absolutely atrocious.

I woke this morning to find an email from Neil Young (actually, Warner Brothers) in my inbox encouraging me to download Neil’s latest archival release, Roxy – Tonight’s the Night Live. The set, for those unaware, captures Neil and the Santa Monica Flyers in performance at the now-legendary Roxy Theatre in L.A. in 1973. They were the first band to play in the hallowed hall, though this set isn’t entirely the first show – it features material recorded from September 20th through the 23rd.

It’s a remarkable set, well worth the purchase (though it can be streamed over at the Neil Young Archives for free at the moment).

Of course, I like to contemplate, cogitate and ruminate before offering a review. So I thought, instead, I’d reach into my own digital archives while I give the set a few more listens. Back in the day (aka the late ‘90s to mid-‘00s), I should explain for newcomers, I oversaw a website also called The Old Grey Cat. The original aim was to create an online encyclopedia of my and Diane’s favorites – and we each had sections and features on many artists, and even – via live365.com, which at the time offered dirt-cheap plans – a radio show, of sorts. But the primarily focus of the endeavor quickly became my “Unofficial Neil Young Pages,” which delved into the world of bootleg CDs.

So, without further adieu, here’s a group review of three bootlegs that capture Neil in performance back in 1973 that I wrote in 1997. (Wow. Where did the time go?) The images are circa ’97, too. (As I note in my Da Boot flashback, Neil Young: The Best of the Unofficial Canon, I never listen to bootlegs nowadays.)

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Lonely Weekend: On the Way Home, Tell Me Why, L.A., Journey Through the Past, Borrowed Tune, Out on the Weekend, Harvest, Old Man, Heart of Gold, Lonely Weekend, New Mama, Alabama, Last Dance, Don’t Be Denied, Cinnamon Girl, Lookout Joe, Southern Man

Last Dance: Cripple Creek Ferry, Here We Are In the Years, L.A., Soldier, Out on the Weekend, Old Man, Heart of Gold, The Loner, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Time Fades Away, New Mama, Alabama, Don’t Be Denied, Cinnamon Girl, Lookout Joe, Southern Man, Last Dance, Are You Ready for the Country?

Broken Arrow: (BBC Sessions:) Out on the Weekend, Old Man, Journey Through the Past, Heart of Gold, Don’t Let Me Bring You Down, A Man Needs a Maid, Love in Mind, Dance, Dance, Dance (Tonight’s the Night acetate:) Tonight’s the Night, Mellow My Mind, Roll Another Number, Tired Eyes, Speakin’ Out, Walk On, For the Turnstiles, Bad Fog of Loneliness, New Mama, Winterlong, Borrowed Tune, Traces

Rock ‘n’ Roll Can Never Die: Tonight’s the Night, Mellow My Mind, World on a String, Speakin’ Out, Albuquerque, New Mama, Roll Another Number, Tired Eyes, Tonight’s the Night, Flying on the Ground Is Wrong, Human Highway, Helpless, Don’t Be Denied

In retrospect, 1973 may well be one of the most important years in Neil’s artistic development. Following Danny Whitten’s overdose death in November ’72, which occurred after Neil sent him home from rehearsals for the upcoming tour, a shaken Neil regrouped with The Stray Gators, and launched a three-month tour that was deemed ramshackle by the rock press and many fans enchanted with the mega-hit Harvest LP. The sets were generally short – 75 minutes or so – and the songs themselves were unkempt, fraying at the edges. By tour’s end, with Neil’s voice by then ravaged, David Crosby and Graham Nash flew in to provide assistance – the result of which can be heard on the live album which resulted from that tour, Time Fades Away. Neil has always characterized that album as an “honest” album – it documented “where he was at” at the time. It also contains stark, powerful songs that speak universal truths about the human condition. They’re plaintive, raw, the kind of material that isn’t readily accessible. Time Fades Away itself is part of the three-album arc that includes Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach, and is an important chapter in Neil’s evolution. That it hasn’t been released on CD as yet is a shame.

Lonely Weekend and Last Dance document two nights from what became the “Time Fades Away” tour. Six days separate Neil’s maiden Maple Leaf Garden concert in Toronto (1/15/73) and the appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, on Jan. 21st in 1973. Lonely Weekend‘s set-list includes “Journey Through the Past” coupled with “Borrowed Tune,” and an electric set that rocks: “Alabama,” “Last Dance,” “Don’t Be Denied,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “Lookout Joe” and “Southern Man” cap the night in fine form. Last Dance continues the pace unabated, adding in such live rarities as “Cripple Creek Ferry,” “Here We Are in the Years” and “Soldier.” The not-so-rare “The Loner” is another treat; Neil and the Stray Gators’ “cook,” to use an aged expression.

Both boots suffer the same relative flaw, however – they’re audience tapes and, as a result, the sonics are a bit flat. That said, they’re actually above average as far as audience tapes go and more than listenable. One’s no better than the other, but neither is worse, either.

1973 didn’t end with those shows, of course. By early summer he’d regrouped with CSN to record an album tentatively named Human Highway. The project collapsed soon thereafter due to ego conflicts (for a hint of what might have been, check out Winterland Reunion) and by August Neil was back working with the surviving members of Crazy Horse and Nils Lofgren, who sat in on guitar. Remember, too, that Bruce Berry (a CSNY roadie) died that year from smack. When Neil and the guys gathered at the recording studio, they’d drink tequila until the mood was right – and then stare into the abyss.

Or something to that effect. The acetate for the Tonight’s the Night Neil originally planned to release – but shelved instead – has come to light in recent years. Mine is titled Broken Arrow (not to be confused with the 1996 studio album of the same name) and comes coupled with an acoustic BBC performance from 1971. The first thing to understand is that it’s not the same album as the Tonight’s the Night released in 1975. Check out the lineup for starters: “Tonight’s the Night,” “Mellow My Mind,” “Roll Another Number,” “Tired Eyes,” “Speakin’ Out,” “Walk On,” “For the Turnstiles,” “Bad Fog of Loneliness,” “New Mama,” “Winterlong,” “Borrowed Tune” and “Traces.” It’s interesting, not necessarily weaker than the released version’s but – to me -nowhere near as intense. Maybe it’s the lack of “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” and the second “Tonight’s the Night,” the fact that the second half of this set, save for “Borrowed Tune,” isn’t really connected to the tragedies of 1973 per se. They’re good songs, don’t get me wrong, and Neil and the band do bring them all justice – “Bad Fog” and “Winterlong” both chug along rather nicely in the arrangements here, and “Traces” is one of the best unreleased tracks in Neil’s arsenal. At the same time, the songs also steal from the overall impact of the album’s overt theme concerning willful and not so willful self-destruction.

As a CD recording of an 25-year-old acetate (a vinyl test-pressing), there’s plenty of pops, crackles and hiss here. In other words, the sound isn’t very good. Of the three CDs reviewed here, it’s the one I’d least recommend to casual or new fans but the one I’d first suggest to fanatics.

Following that recording session, Neil did what he seems to do on a frequent basis: He hit the road. But if the concerts in the early part of the year were deemed “ramshackle,” these shows were–well, damned weird. “Welcome to Miami Beach,” he’d proclaim between songs. The songs, of course, were from the – at the time – unreleased Tonight’s the Night. As Rock ‘n’ Roll Can Never Die, which documents the November 3rd Manchester, England show, shows, he’d launch into the new material with…controlled abandon. It’s interesting to listen to; for one, unlike the acetate, the song cycle is much more in tune with the official product, with only “Borrowed Tune,” “C’mon Baby Let’s Go Downtown,” and “Lookout Joe” missing, and the other songs, while presented in a slightly different order, having the impact that acetate does not. The show also lays doubt to Neil’s alleged lack of coherence. Listened to from a distance of 24 years, and minus the visuals, he sounds in full control of both his faculties and his art–even when he’s heckled from the audience! “It’s great to be a rock ‘n’ roll star,” he says leading up to an intense rendition of “Don’t Be Denied.”

Don’t be denied, indeed. All four: A.

[More on Rock ‘n’ Roll Can Never Die can be found on Neil Young: The Best of the Unofficial Canon.]

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And one more, also from ’73 – my take on the aforementioned Winterland Reunion.

The songs: Helplessly Hoping, Wooden Ships, Blackbird, As I Come of Age, Roll Another Number, Human Highway, New Mama, So It Goes, Prison Song, Long Time Gone, Change Partners (bonus:) Down by the River

1973: It was a bad year, a sad year, a year for the history books. “The pall of the Watergate is upon us,” reflected Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmum in an address to the American Bar Association that August. So true. America, it seemed, was fraying at the seams. Not only was there the Watergate matter, but there was an economic crisis, an energy crisis–and, to bring the crises closer to home, an aborted CSNY reunion.

The foursome had come together on Maui in Hawaii, recording a bevy of songs (“Human Highway,” “Pardon My Heart,” “And So It Goes,” “Prison Song” and “Homeward Through the Haze,” among others) before … yep. The same-old, same-old ego-conflicts arose. “It would have been the best album we ever made,” Crosby told writer Johnny Rogan.

Winterland Reunion, then, is a hint of what could have been. On October 4th, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young convened on stage following a Manassas concert. What a show! On the surface, the all-acoustic performance is a ragged affair, but the undertow is strong enough to pull you in. “There’s no preparation. You’re getting it as it comes,” explains Nash before Stills launches  into the night’s closing song, “Change Partners.”

In short: What a show!

One highlight is Neil’s “Human Highway,” during which he and Stephen trade off verses. Other highlights: “Wooden Ships,” “Blackbird,” “As I Come of Age”…uh, wait. Let’s do it another way: See the track listing up above? Those are the highlights! Really. Soundwise, this is superb, with its only drawback being inexplicable one- or two-second drop-outs during a few of the songs.

The electric “Down by the River” – from The Music Scene in 1969–is another revelation, yet another example of the foursome at the peak of their powers. (A)

Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news: The Internet changed everything.

Yeah, yeah, yeah: That ain’t exactly new. And neither’s the main focus of today’s post, bootlegs, which I’ve written about before. (See here and here.) But for any young ‘un who’s stumbled across this blog, or folks who never caught the collecting bug, understand this: There was a time in the not-so-distant past when fans clamoring for more, more, more from their favorite artists skulked through the aisles at record fairs and independent stores in search of unofficial releases – aka bootlegs, which ranged from studio scraps (alternate versions and unreleased songs) to concert recordings – and official, but non-commercial product, such as the King Biscuit Flower Hour live shows distributed on LP or CD to radio stations.

I imagine some, in fact, still do. Plenty of others, however, turn to YouTube, Facebook groups and email lists (are they still a thing?) and trade amongst themselves via whatever free bulk-download site is the flavor of the month. Back in the day, though, pursuing one’s passion meant shelling out bucks. Some fans purchased everything. The rest of us? After I bought a two-CD bootleg of a Bruce Springsteen concert that sounded like the microphone had been placed in a puddle of mud, I did my due diligence the best that I could. That meant asking store clerks to pop a CD into the in-house stereo system so I could check the sound – and, too, reading as much as I could about underground releases.

Helping to separate the wheat from the chaff: newsletters such as ICE, which delved into legitimate releases but also featured a “Going Underground” column; and such fanzines as the Beatle-obsessive 910, Neil Young-centric Broken Arrow and Springsteen-oriented Backstreets. There were plenty of other fanzines focused on other artists and specific genres, too, and many could be purchased at independent record stores – as well as Tower Records and Books.

The 910, today’s example, was and still is focused on all things Beatles. The brainchild of Doug Sulpy, it began life as the Illegal Beatles ‘zine (which I also used to buy) in the 1980s before morphing into the 910, so named as a play on “One After 909.” The difference between the two? The 910 had a wider lens on its scope and included articles on and reviews of legitimate releases in addition to bootlegs. (Sulpy, I should mention, cowrote one of the best books about the Fabs, Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles’ Let It Be Disaster.) The 910 also looked nicer. Much nicer.

This edition, which is dated January/February 1992, is a bonanza of insights and news. As the cover and contents page show, it delves deep into a recent crop of Beatle bootlegs; reviews legitimate fare; explores “lost” footage from the Yellow Submarine movie; and chronicles the history of the song “One After 909,” which the Fabs first recorded while still named the Quarrymen in 1960.

1) The Beatles – “Twist and Shout.” A review of the 1990 The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit documentary about the Fabs’ maiden visit to America explains that the film features footage from the Maysles brothers’ 1964 What’s Happening: The Beatles in the USA TV doc combined with the Beatles’ 1964 Ed Sullivan Show performances and Washington Coliseum concert. Although Sulpy has some quibbles with the finished product, he concludes with: “Apple is to be congratulated for assembling and releasing such a marvelously edited and fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the group’s first U.S. tour, and even if completists moan about missing footage, from an artistic standpoint Apple has done it right.”

2) The Beatles – “Hey Bulldog.” So, apparently, the original U.S. print of Yellow Submarine omitted a scene of the animated Fabs set to this under-appreciated John Lennon song. Penned by Steve Shorten, the article explores the whys and wherefores of the cut sequence, and posits that it was initially excised from the finished film for reasons of time. “Because the entire sequence involved plot elements completely tangential to the main plot,” it could be easily chopped without anyone arching an eyebrow. It was likely added to the U.K. print, he surmises, after someone associated with the Beatles noticed that the song was missing from the movie. (The 1999 re-release of the film on DVD, for what it’s worth, features the sequence, so it’s no longer “lost.” For what that’s worth.)

3) The Beatles – “One After 909.” Although released on Let It Be in 1970, “One After 909” is actually one of the earliest of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting efforts, dating to 1957. In the article, Alan Pollack chronicles its known history, which includes the 1960 Quarrymen demos, 1962 Cavern Club rehearsals (which this clip is from), 1963 EMI recordings and numerous renditions from the 1969 “Get Back” sessions.

In a sense, the song was one of few remnants of the raison d’etre for the Let It Be/”Get Back” project, which began as a way for the Beatles (at Paul’s urging) to return to their roots. It’s why so many of the out-takes from the sessions are ramshackle run-throughs of oldies.

4) The Beatles – “She’s a Woman, Take 2.” Steve Shorten reviews Unsurpassed Masters Volume 6 and Volume 7. “Yellow Dog’s releases have proved themselves in the past to be just about the only bootleg CDs worth buying,” he says up top, before summarizing that both volumes are “worthy additions to your CD shelf.”

I have these two bootlegs, actually, purchased not because of this review but because I had (and still have, somewhere) the first five volumes in the series. But, truth be told? The series had run out of steam by this point due to a dearth of interesting out-takes. (There’s only so many alternate versions of any song one needs to hear, in other words.)

5) The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Nothing but Aging from Vigotone Records collects rarities featured on the Lost Lennon Tapes radio series as well as tracks bootlegged elsewhere. I never owned it, as it’s an LP (and by the early ‘90s I was only buying CDs) so don’t know if the “Strawberry Fields Forever” on it is the same as this clip I found on YouTube. But the YouTube clip reminds me of the very first Beatles bootleg I purchased – at the now-defunct City Lights Records in State College, Pa., in the mid ‘80s. Side 2 of that LP featured a string of cuts that tracked the development of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and… well, wow!

daboot

This is something I wrote for Da Boot! for its Nov.-Dec. 1999 edition. The fanzine, much like my CSN/Y-oriented Old Grey Cat website, primarily focused on bootleg CDs, which were all the rage at the time – and in my life. I collected them; wrote about them for the site; edited oft-incoherent reviews submitted by fellow fans; and even received freebies from a Scotland-based label, which was actually just an indie record-store owner who’d invested in a pricey CD-burner. I’ve edited it ever-so-slightly.

The irony is, these days, I never listen to bootlegs.

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neilbootaI’m generally hesitant to offer “best-of” lists of “collector CDs.” Why? Fact is, the haphazard bootleg industry ensures of some oversights. Labels open, labels close, only to open again under another name or in another country, maybe one in the Pacific Rim or—thanks to the advent of CDRs—even in someone’s basement. And the distribution of product accounts for other “misses.” No two stores stock all of the same titles; once a title is gone, chances are it’s gone for good. Great Dane’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Cowboy is a good example. If you find it these days, it will be in the used-CD bin or as a knock-off—or as a reconfigured, fan-distributed CDR with a disc or two of additional material added on for good measure.

neiltop10bootThe way we relate to Neil’s music ensures of more differences. The man responsible for the folk-flavored Harvest also delivered the electric tour de force re*ac*tor. “You were born to rock, you’ll never be an opera star,” Neil whines in the opening volley, a symphonic swell of harsh metallic guitars wailing in the background. That album’s finale, “Shots,” is a masterpiece on a par with Neil’s best—rock critic Johnny Rogan has written that the acoustic take (from the 1978 “World Tour” at the San Francisco Boarding House) is superior, but I say otherwise. THIS is the definitive version. It blows through the soul, and that’s no lie. To the point: With such a large and varied body of work to choose from, fans are bound to prefer certain albums and tours to others. For example, of late I’ve been entrenched in Broken Arrow—those thud-thick chords in “Big Time” reverberate through the soul long after the CD has been plucked from the player. Of course, some fans think this last go-round with Crazy Horse was one go-round too many…they’d scoff at one of my favorites, Phoenix Arcade, and its 18-minute, feedback-strewn version of “Like a Hurricane.” What can I say but this: It gets me off. (Chances are, they will you, too.)

Suffice it to say, this isn’t an “objective” best-of. Rather, these are 10 entertaining snapshots and/or overviews of Neil’s career, discs that I’ve turned to time and again. In my opinion, they’d make for excellent additions to any fan’s collection.

neilcow1) Rock ‘n’ Roll Cowboy – Until Neil releases the much-anticipated Archives set, this four-CD compilation of live rarities from the defunct Great Dane label will have to do. Spanning the years from 1967 to 1993, it collects a bevy of treats, including “Sweet Joni,” a delicate piano-based paean to Joni Mitchell performed in Bakersfield, CA, during 1973’s Time Fades Away tour. Other highlights include the unreleased “Traces” and “Love Art Blues,” both buttressed by CSN’s harmonies, as well as the song Mojo magazine named as Neil’s best unreleased song, the Blue Notes-backed “Ordinary People.” Add in the fierce SNL debut of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” “Stringman” from ’76 and…you name it, chances are a version of it is here.

neillegend2) Legend of a Loner – Also available (with a few alterations) as Jewel Box 6, this cop of the legitimate rarities promo CD Hard to Find is a perfect complement to Rock ‘n’ Roll Cowboy. From its first cut, an alternate take of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul,” to its last, the funny “Don’t Spook the Horse,” there’s nary a low. Among the highlights: a Stray Gator-backed “Last Trip to Tulsa” that rips the original acoustic take to shreds. Yeah, it sounds somewhat like a Dylan song—but, then, it always did. Another cool find is “War Song,” the Young-Nash collaboration celebrating the 1972 presidential bid of George McGovern. Also included is “Pushed It Over the End,” recorded live with CSNY in 1974 and, buttressed with studio overdubs, released in the early ’80s as part of an Italian box set. Suffice it to say, CSN’s harmonies are heavenly, a perfect addition to one of Neil’s best songs. The pre-truncated studio version of “Campaigner” is included, as well.

neilcarn3) Carnegie Hall – Recorded in December 1970 by Reprise for a live album that never materialized, this acoustic set features a wealth of golden-hued nuggets. Take “Southern Man”: Yes, it’s minus the driving electric guitars. And, yes, it’s excellent. Dedicated to George Wallace, the anger and bitterness are supplanted with sadness and near-resignation. “Southern change is gonna come at last …” Unlike London ’71, “new” songs are few and far between—”Wondering,” “Old Man,” “Bad Fog on Loneliness” and “See the Sky About to Rain” are it. Don’t let that sway you, however. One truly stupendous highlight: the very first “dope/acid rock song” he ever wrote—”Flying on the Ground Is Wrong.” Accompanying himself at the piano, he launches into the audio equivalent of a honey-slide. It may be wrong, but you’ll be flying in your living room…

neillon4) London ’71 – Although recorded just two months after his Carnegie Hall concert, this February 1971 affair is as different from it as dusk is from dawn. Yeah, there are similarities, but this set is marked by the debuts of the songs that formed the heart of Harvest: “Old Man,” “Out on the Weekend,” “Heart of Gold,” “A Man Needs a Maid” and the title track, which Neil informs the audience was written the night before. Other highlights include a drop-dead, beautiful “Love in Mind.” Compare this set to, say, later solo Neil, and what comes across most is the slow dissolve of innocence and the dwelling on the down and dour; but, of course, that “dissolve” is the domain (primarily) of the young. Here, it’s captured by one of the best chroniclers of such stuff in the arts. The sound quality is stellar throughout, with a minimum of hiss and audience noise. Even a novice fan would/should enjoy it.

neilrrcd5) Rock ‘n’ Roll Can Never Die – Backed by the rag-tag Santa Monica Flyers, in the fall of ’73 Neil kicked off the Tonight’s the Night tour, confounding audiences and critics alike. Dressed like a sleazy barker, he’d step to the fore and greet the audience with a rousing, “Welcome to Miami Beach, ladies and gentlemen.” As represented by this Manchester gig from November, the shows were strange, incoherent affairs, with weird stage patter filling the gaps between songs. Oh, the songs. Check out this set: “Tonight’s the Night,” “Mellow My Mind,” “World on a String,” “Speakin’ Out,” “Albuquerque,” “New Mama,” “Roll Another Number,” “Tired Eyes,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong,” “Human Highway,” “Helpless” and “Don’t Be Denied.” The first eight songs were new; and the audience had heard the ninth (the second “Tonight’s the Night”) only once before—at the beginning of the set! Of the remaining songs, “Human Highway” was also unreleased and “Don’t Be Denied,” a key track on the ragged glory that is the Time Fades Away LP, wasn’t well known. Only “Helpless” rated as familiar. Why, then, is this a necessity? In front of a faithful, if frustrated, audience, Neil eulogizes and exorcises fallen comrades Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry. Maybe that’s why “Don’t Be Denied” is so heart-palpitating—or is that chilling? Against a backdrop of death and broken dreams, Neil’s exhorting folks—and himself—to stay true to their dreams regardless of the consequences.

neilblue6) Blue Notes – “Live music is better.” It’s a refrain heard often on the Neil Young discussion group known as the Rust List. Why? Live, music makes an even greater visceral impact than a CD, LP or cassette—it’s an immediate connection. You feed off the performer, he feeds off you, and you’re there, wherever there is, not stoned but STONED, and not from drink or drugs but from the music itself. And guess what? In a live setting, few artists achieve what Neil achieves. The two-CD Blue Notes is proof. Consisting of a fairly typical set from his summer ’88 tour with the Blue Notes, Neil is in terrific form both vocally and on guitar, ripping out patented, emotion-filled solos seemingly without effort. Highlights abound, but due to space concerns I’ll only single out a few. At a sprawling 12 minutes, “Ordinary People” catalogues evil done in the name of, for and to everyday folk, and includes several pyrotechnic guitar solos. “Crime in the City” and its 17-minute parent, the acoustic “Sixty to Zero”—one of three bonus songs—are also striking. Like a Picasso painting, the images presented aren’t necessarily connected save for the fact that they share the same canvas. The end result, however, is one of pure artistry.

neilwarpath7) Warpath – Santa Cruz 11/13/90: It’s a show that’s been bootlegged to death, right? You’ve got Homegrown, Feedback Is Back and other two-disc sets battling for your bucks, all documenting the same “open rehearsal” for what became the Don’t Spook the Horse tour. Each possesses good to excellent sound. And all were worth the investment—until now. Unlike those abridged sets, Warpath presents the entire concert, from the opening “Country Home” to the closing “Cortez the Killer,” stretching three-songs deep onto a third CD. In between, you’ll find “Surfer Joe & Moe the Sleaze,” “Bite the Bullet,” “Dangerbird” and “Homegrown,” among other nuggets. It’s an electric, goofy set—what else can be said about a show that includes “T-Bone”? What pushes the four-CD Warpath into the “must” category, however, is what follows. Rather than fill the third disc with “bonus” cuts, the fine folks behind the Doberman label saw fit to include all of Minneapolis 1/22/91, the official kick-off to the tour proper. In the month between shows, the proverbial shit had hit the fan: the Persian Gulf War, to be exact. The bombs dropping on Baghdad are echoed in the music, November’s goofiness excised in favor of an intense, straight-ahead attack. A good barometer is “Fuckin’ Up.” In Santa Cruz, it comes across as almost joyous, the profane chorus a snickering declaration of purpose, as much as anything. By Minneapolis, however, it’s a menacing, sneering anthem. And while the Minneapolis set is similar to what’s found on the official Weld live set, there are a few minor variations, most notably the inclusion of “Campaigner.” In short, Warpath—which boasts great sound, as well—is more than a worthwhile addition to a fan’s collection. It’s a necessity.

neilfrisco8) Frisco – Clocking in at almost 50 minutes, this audience recording of Neil and Crazy Horse’s acoustic performance at the ’94 Bridge Benefit is a near-perfect extension to what is—arguably—Neil’s best album of the ’90s, Sleeps with Angels. Highlights include a near-19 minute version of “Change Your Mind.” If you don’t think it’s possible to wrench feedback from an acoustic guitar, think again; Neil does that and more. Other highlights include “Sleeps with Angels,” juxtaposed by “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” two songs forever linked thanks to Kurt Cobain. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” takes on new meaning in this context, with “fade away” translating into what Cobain did the moment he pulled the trigger. Death is a one-way ticket, don’t you know.

neilphoenix9) Phoenix Arcade – “Feel.” I refer to it below, so I shan’t dwell too much on it here. But this one-disc, seven-song offering on Moonraker is “feel” personified. The first four songs come from the 1996 Phoenix Festival in England via a radio broadcast. In short, they sum up Neil & the Horse circa ’96 as well as the official Year of the Horse, if not more so. The loping “Big Time” kicks things off, with each chord a concentric circle in which one can easily get lost. “Sedan Delivery” provides an adrenaline rush; yeah, the tempo’s slowed from the days of yore, but…it’s there, in the grooves. The man, the band, refuse to fade away. Then, after a suitably hushed “Music Arcade,” Crazy Horse ignites an incendiary “Like a Hurricane.” Close your eyes and you’ll see candles positioned around the darkened stage while Neil weaves in and out of the spotlight while making magic with his guitar. For 18 glorious, cacophonous minutes, that is. Then a half-assed audience recording from Stockholm kicks in. The magic there comes late, with the CD’s closing track, “Cinnamon Girl,” stretching into a spacey, six-minute “Loose Change”-like jam.

neildance10) Dancin’ in the Sunset Hues – Like its other Neil releases, this three-CD offering from the European-based Doberman label is a prime example of what bootlegs can—and should—be when care is taken with the product. The first thing you’ll notice is the very cool artwork gracing the cover. And the music? Those “thud-thick” chords I mentioned earlier? They’re here in spades. The entire Hamilton, Ontario, ’96 show, it’s noteworthy primarily because of an atypical set (for the Broken Arrow tour, that is). For example, “Cowgirl in the Sand” surfaces after a lengthy absence. Another high arrives when Neil and the Horse glide through an electric “Natural Beauty.” It’s grace personified. Of note, too, are the bonus songs from other stops along the ’96 tour, including an electric “Needle & the Damage Done” and a passionate “Campaigner.” Granted, Dancin’ is an audience recording and, at times, has a bit of a distant sound. But, for me, it comes down to this: “Feel” outweighs sonics. And this one feels damn good.