We’ve been having a heated debate at GLONO HQ over what to do re: The Neil Young Archives. I mean, the guy is KILLING us with these delays and blu-ray disks and the price tag…what’s a Rusty to do??? If you’re not a Neil Young freak you’re probably laughing at us and dismissing us as stooges for even caring anymore. What’s the difference between us and the Guns n’ Roses fans who held out for 16 years waiting for Chinese Democracy? Well, smartass, the difference is the music and Sugar Mountain: Neil Young Live at Canterbury House 1968 just supports our madness. Recorded in Ann Arbor, MI, November 9-10, just days before the release of Young’s self titled solo debut, Canterbury captures Neil at his geeky, freaky folky best.
The emcee for the show opens the disk by thanking the audience—one considerably larger than expected, but still small-ish sounding on tape—before welcoming Neil to the stage. A polite round of applause and then the first notes of “On the Way Home” take you back to what was surely Ann Arbor’s finest moment when it was still politically relevant and a home to freaks and hippies alike. Next to Berkeley, California, Ann Arbor was the center of the New Left and student activism. Today you’d be hard pressed to get students to rail against anything bigger than the Buckeyes. Yes, Ann Arbor was a powerhouse and to hit there was to tap into a youth market with power.
Conversely, Neil Young was relatively unknown. Sure, he’d been in a big band, the Buffalo Springfield, but he’d also left that band as soon as they had a top ten hit—one NOT sung by him, incidentally. “For What It’s Worth” was a clarion call to this youth movement, but it was sung by Neil’s estranged musical soul mate Stephen Stills. Here was Neil starting over again as the same folky he was in Canada just a couple years earlier. The difference now being an arsenal of songs at his disposal that could lay waste to the most cynical rock critic.
The heart of Neil Young’s songwriting is the story telling. Even when he’s cryptic and weird (see: “Pocahontas” or “Thrashers” or “Powderfinger”) Neil has an uncanny ability to conjure cinematic pictures in your mind that convey the details of a story or a character that go unspoken. In 1968 Neil Young was bursting with these stories and brimming with melodies he can barely contain. Immediately after an intimate rendering of “Birds” Neil is fiddling with his guitar trying to figure out what to play next and noodles out a few notes and chords. “Hey, that’s a new melody…” That new melody is the foundation of “Winterlong,” a song apparently not even written yet. This comes after Neil explains that he wrote the Buffalo Springfield stomper “Mr. Soul” in five minutes without any editing. “The song takes about five minutes just to play.” To have documentation of these stories and to catch a glimpse—no matter how fleeting—of Neil Young’s mind at work as he’s just entering a creative peak is worth the price of admission alone.
Ann Arbor is also the birthplace of “Sugar Mountain” a song that so perfectly captures the doubt and energy of youth in the most intimate way as to illicit nostalgic feelings in the most hardened among us. Captured here is Neil singing the song in the place it was written, to a crowd of idealistic, dopey college kids facing the Vietnam war, racial unrest, political assassination and civil unrest like we haven’t seen since the actual Civil War…or since. “Ain’t it funny how it feels when you’re finding out it’s real?”
Among the 23 tracks are thirteen songs ranging from Neil’s Springfield days to his soon-to-be released solo debut and slightly beyond. Neil has always complained about the overblown production on his debut album as being “reverb city.” Well, here we have the songs in their simplest and most graceful form and it has me pining for more.
“I never plan anything ahead, in case anyone hasn’t noticed.”
Oh, we’ve noticed Neil and it’s killing us. The constant dangling and removing of the Archives has many of us spinning into madness and the rest of us questioning our priorities when we consider spending hundreds of dollars on more marketing trappings. But for fans of Neil Young these releases are more than mere trappings. They’re mementos from a journey we’ve all taken, even if they’ve been on different paths and different times. This album was recorded years before I was born and yet I can picture myself in the crowd as a 19 year old earnest music fan and political neophyte being sucked into the stream with my classmates and happy to swim. That’s the power of music and live performance. If given the chance for more, how can I possibly say no?