Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Masters: Neil Young - Best Live Albums

RtBE loves listening to new music and prides itself on keeping tabs on up and coming artists, but in 2019 we are also going to have a monthly spotlight on legendary artists who we really love. We are calling this series The Masters. It will focus on the best albums, live records, transcendent shows and other odd ways we appreciate the artists and their contribution to music, culture and our formation.

For August The Masters focuses on the great Neil Young.

Live music is the best thing out there. Being caught in the moment is religion. Palpable vibes of healing and energy are transmitted and shit...gets...real. This month's focus, Neil Young has been following his musical muse from soft acoustic one man shows to huge loud electric raging his whole career.

We already discussed best studio albums and will get to our favorites with Crazy Horse next week, but now it is the live show. Having seen Uncle Neil live in various formations this was a fun one to revisit. There have been a bunch of recent archive releases, and there promises to be even more in the future, which could alter this collection but this is how we feel now.

Also, there is one album in his catalog which could possibly top this list, but we will discuss why we kept it out later. Remember these lists are meant to start conversations, not end them, now let Neil guide the way....

#5 Live at the Cellar Door - 1970 (Released 2013)

When it comes to solo Neil, I will take this archive release which finds Young on the cusp of stardom and realizing that there are scary things out in the world. Live at the Cellar Door was captured over six nights in fall/winter 1970 down in Washington D.C. and it is directly after the October release of the amazing After The Gold Rush.

Young was about to blow up in huge ways and there is a mix of detached, engaged, wallowing, joyous which makes this solo show a fun one to go back to. The songs from AtGR make up the majority of this set with some excellent piano work from Young as the bright production captures an intimate set of songs. While some may vote for Live at Massey Hall 1971 or Sugar Mountain – Live at Canterbury House 1968 for solo Neil, RtBE will take this contemplative almost bleak/distraught solo performance when we want stripped down Neil. 

#4 Time Fades Away - 1973

Neil has hated this album, so like with On The Beach, you know it has to be pretty good in some respects. In all honesty, he admits that is a good capturing of that place time and tour even if he doesn't like how it sounds or what that represents. Shaggy, ragged Neil is when Neil is at his best and while there are certainly flaws this is a go to record for a few versions of Young's tunes.

Opener "Time Fades Away" is one of those, as the title track is an excellent mediation on loss and life. The personal history of Neil is brought to life in two varied numbers whose capturing on Time Fades Away is worth hearing. "Journey Through The Past" and the anthem "Don't Be Denied" both ring out gloriously through Young's tortured voice and shining guitar (along with Ben Keith's pedal steel). Tracks like "The Bridge" aren't vital by any stretch but the overall haggard/dragged out feeling makes for a pretty interesting listen in Neil's vast catalog.

#3 Weld - 1991

Loud Neil is best Neil to RtBE's ears and it doesn't get much louder than Weld, in fact Neil says his hearing loss started with this album as he and Crazy Horse blow it out. Sure, there is a lot of overlap on this live record and number two on our list, but those songs still rawk hard and haven't aged much at all.

The newer tunes from Ragged Glory and Freedom also bang and clang, getting punchy under Neil and Horses direction. "Love To Burn" and "Love and Only Love" are killer examples of the band connecting in their patented garage rock train-about-to-careen-off-the-tracks kind of way. "Love and Only Love" is guitar heaven as is the groove "Love To Burn" while "Fuckin' Up" is a blast; the grunge generation got to hear the godfather of grunge do it proper and in real time.

The old warhorses like a supped up crazy "Welfare Mothers", "Powderfinger", "Like A Hurricane" and a slooow "Cortez The Killer" are all fantastic and new anthem "Rockin' In the Free World" joins that pantheon here. The chill inducing cover of "Blowin' In The Wind" is worth hearing even if you are not a big fan of the primitive NY&CH style...

RtBE are huge fans of that style and that is why Weld starts a run of three of their albums topping this list. 

#2 Live Rust- 1979

The top two on this list flipped and flopped as we went back over Neil's catalog. In the end, Live Rust was our second choice for mostly personal reasons as it is hard to argue with the killer playing by acoustic Neil and then the full Crazy Horse on this live record.

The companion piece to the Rust Never Sleeps tour, this album delivers a few different acoustic songs and loud versions of the electric songs, but the truth is, when RtBE is itching for these tunes, nine times out of ten we reach for Rust Never Sleeps itself. While that album could be considered for our live list that one is saved for the NY&CH catalog.

Overall the playing and performance is great on Live Rust, even giving "Cortez The Killer" a bizarre reggae ending. RtBE just thinks of this release as more of a fantastic concert film than a perfect live album. Young used visuals, odd road-eyes and Woodstock clips that don't translate as well when you just hear the tunes.

All of that said it still kicks ass, "Powderfinger" and "Like A Hurricane" are huge, "The Loner" is cool and "Cinnamon Girl" bangs. There is just one other live album we always reach for more often....     

#1 Live at The Fillmore East - Recorded 1970 Released 2006

Six songs, forty three minutes, no bad notes as Young and the original lineup of the Horse with Danny Whitten on guitar and Jack Nitzsche on electric piano; the band simply sound glorious. "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" kicks things off winningly before "Winterlong" adds to the fun. Then the magic truly begins.

While "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown" and the rolling "Wonderin'" are nice reliefs the guitar majesty on display during "Down By the River" and "Cowgirl In The Sand" are mesmerizing. Both highlight the interplay between Whitten and Young and showcase some amazing passages as they extend out on and on; they are two of the best live rock and roll performances to these ears.

These two tracks ring out with power and confidence, this is the last hurrah for Whitten as Young would go on to one of the all-time great rock and roll careers. Here they speak in six string glory over two classic grooves, easily rocking out with the pleasures of youth and wide open futures. Both tracks are a joy to behold and the overall release is a gas to listen to almost fifty years removed from that night...

Speaking of that night, can you imagine Neil and Miles Davis sharing that bill? Well you don't need to imagine, you can play Miles and Neil back to back with Live Fillmore East and Live Fillmore East...ain't life grand? It certainly is with tunes like these... 

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