A New Album from an Old Icon

Neil Young has long been an icon of the folk-rock world, hailed by many as the Canadian answer to Bob Dylan. In many ways, Young has proven more consistent than Dylan; his albums have always sold well for the last thirty years. This success can be attributed to his eclectic style – whether it be his solo acoustic work of the 70’s or his 90’s foray into grunge, Young has shown an uncanny ability to transform his sound. For years, low-quality bootlegs of Neil Young concerts have existed, but never officially released. That is, until last December, when Reprise Records finally unveiled Live at Fillmore East, a mostly rock-oriented concert from 1970 featuring Neil Young and rock ensemble Crazy Horse.

Reprise’s latest offering is Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall 1971, an entirely solo acoustic set which serves as a perfect contrast to last year’s Fillmore East. The performance, which occurred before the release of the 1972 classic album, Harvest, shows Young at his best and most fragile, performing songs which, at that time, had not seen the light of day.

Throughout the entire show, Young jokes around with the audience and talks about the meaning and inspiration behind many of his songs. Before he plays the then-unknown hit, “Old Man,” he remarks how a 70-year-old man who worked on his farm provided the song’s inspiration.

Songs like “Old Man” gives the concert a mostly somber and sedated performance. Other standouts like “Love in Mind,” “Don’t Let it Bring You Down,” and the unreleased “Bad Fog of Loneliness” show Young at his best, both melodic and contemplative.

But the concert’s centerpiece, “A Man Needs a Maid/Heart of Gold Suite” undoubtedly steals the show – the two songs, which both eventually debuted on Harvest, are combined into one medley, adding more power to both. In addition, hearing the often-overplayed “Heart of Gold” subdued to only Neil at the piano adds even more emotion to the song’s remarkably catchy melody.

“Needle and the Damage Done,” Young’s outstanding song about heroin addiction, also benefits from the acoustic set. Unlike its Harvest counterpart, the acoustic “Needle” allows Neil to pour even more emotion into the performance. He sings, “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done, a little part of it in everyone/But every junkie’s like a setting sun.”

Young livens things up towards the end of his show with the crowd-pleasing “Dance Dance Dance,” as he asks the audience to sing and clap along. The song earns a tremendous ovation, which eventually draws Young back onto the stage for an encore performance of “I am a Child,” ending the show on a poignant and thoughtful note.

In the end, Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall 1971 shows Young at his best, alone behind an acoustic guitar and piano. The stripped-down setting accentuates the songs better than his overproduced studio versions and only furthers the claim that Neil Young was, and continues to be, one of the most influential voices of folk music.