|Neil Young - Live at Massey Hall 1971|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by K L Poore|
|Sunday, 01 April 2007|
release year: 2007
reviewed by: K L Poore
The story goes that one day Marcel Proust dipped a bit of cake into some lemon tea and the aroma elicited such strong memories of his childhood that he spent the remainder of his life writing the seven volumes that make up “Remembrance of Things Past.”
Like everyone, I’m periodically the captive of, and transported by, a feeling or smell or sound that drags me into a reverie about (often idealized) days past. Whether it’s the smell of fresh cut grass sending me back to the baseball diamonds of my youth or the sound of car tires in rain sparking memories of my face pressed against the cold glass windows of my childhood home, I’m easily transported to days of innocence and longing.
Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall 1971 is a perfect example of that phenomenon, and a crystalline pure reflection of everything that is great about his art. It is so perfect a chronicle, so emotionally immediate, so reflective of an era and at the same time timeless, that it’s almost frightening. From the opening cut (“On the Way Home”), I was so touched by songs that I’ve listened to thousands of times that I wondered if there’s some kind of subliminal message interwoven throughout it. It’s the ‘70s aural version of Proust’s lemon tea and cake. I was whisked back to the day when a girlfriend materialized with an LP she’d copped from her older brother’s collection. It was dark and grey and the guy on the cover couldn’t be bothered to stop long enough for the photo. After the Gold Rush. I was there. I could see her face, hear the noise in the schoolyard around me, feel the LP cover squeezed tightly in my grubby little hands. A mixture of confusion, wonder and discovery poured over me and I was a kid again.
If you are a fan of Neil’s and especially, specifically, a fan of his acoustic/solo performances, you might look upon this release as a sort of Holy Grail. It’s packed with humble beauty and delicate unease, and it’s easy to see why producer David Briggs wanted this live album released instead of Harvest (which was recorded later, in Nashville). It is so good, so artistically satisfying and intimate, that you begin to wonder what Neil’s course would have been had he done so. The songs that had been released prior to this concert, such as “I Am a Child,” “Ohio,” “Down by the River,” are even more gorgeous in this solo setting, and taken out of the band context, their simplicity and beauty become the focus, versus the production. It’s a stark reinforcement that Neil is one of those rare people who can write just about anything, in any manner he sees, and connect with the listener on a cake and lemon tea level.
I imagine that when Harvest arrived later that year anyone who’d been lucky or prescient enough to attend these shows had to be shocked by the differences in songs like “There’s a World” and “A Man Needs a Maid.” In the few months between these MH solo versions and Neil’s Harvest sessions, they blossomed into full-blown cinematic adventures, complete with the London Symphony Orchestra. I have to admit that I now prefer these versions to the Harvest originals, especially “World.” Whereas before it seemed dramatic and overly powerful, the solo version shows it to be much more universally human. “There’s a world you’re living in/No one else has your part/All God’s children in the wind/Take it in and blow hard.” Where the cautious hope and sense of individuality becomes somewhat lost in the original, this version sings to each of us. I put this song on repeat and listened to it for about 30 minutes before moving on. It’s easily my favorite cut.
Massey Hall is a wonder of listening pleasure. Neil moves smoothly between songs old (“Tell Me Why”) and new (“Old Man”) and is confident and warm, revealing an artist who would reach a place every musician hopes to get within even an arm’s grasp of. He not only proved to be the voice of his generation, but of each one afterwards. Nearly every musician, regardless of genre, has recognized his quirky, sometimes skittish genius, and secretly wants to be him. And if they don’t want to be him, they at least want to know his secret.
I can’t rate MH on the Rod Stewart GRCOOT scale because it’s hard to even mention them in the same sentence, much less place the latter’s hackneyed crapola in the same universe as these beautiful songs. At least the Madonna live release has pretensions towards achieving some kind of art (with an F), no matter how artificial or $$-driven the music/performances may be.
Neil’s output easily puts him in the company of popular music’s greatest artists, and whomever you believe those artists to be, you know he belongs. In listening to Live at Massey Hall 1971, you realize that even at this early stage in his career he’d already sealed the deal … it just took 36 years for the ultimate proof to be presented. Every song on this release not only spoke to those who were in the audience then, but continue to speak to us now. Old before his years and young for today, Neil Young and this recording are treasures to be kept and shared.
“Only through art can we get outside ourselves,” Proust wrote, “and know another’s view of the universe.” Neil Young’s art goes a step further; he allows us to see his view of the universe and from that vantage point examine our own. Massey Hall is a journey through the past each of us should undertake.
I don’t really know much about Massey Hall but from what I hear here it seems to be a live room with a beautiful ambience. The crowd is just far enough away so that it doesn’t overpower the performer – but what is it about Canadians that they have to scream like wild parrots every time they hear the word “Canada”? This may sound strange but it was fun listening to Neil’s dry humor as he tuned his guitars or announced new songs. If he hadn’t gone into rock, he could have been Canada’s great stand-up comedian.
I drove around with Massey Hall for a couple of days and enjoyed it enormously, but I have to emphasize that the DVD 24-bit/96-PCM stereo sound is the way to go. A 5.1 surround mix would have been totally unnecessary for this release, as the solo performance is much better served in the hi-res stereo format.
You can really hear the superior depth of field on the DVD (versus the CD) and the natural sounds of Neil’s guitars are truly enhanced by the 24/96. It’s warm and well-intonated, and will make guitar players all over the world wish they owned these particular instruments. His voice is clear, piano well- miked, and I couldn’t hear a single artifact anywhere on this recording.
So the CD/DVD version of Live at Massey Hall 1971 is the one to buy. Along with a great and great-sounding CD you get the DVD with enhanced audio plus video of the show mashed in the Bernard Shakey collage style, with actual show footage, spinning tape recorders and synched performances. I watched the DVD once, but afterwards have only played the audio portion with the TV off. Also on the DVD are sections for song lyrics, photographs, a couple of TV clips including Neil on a Johnny Cash special, and a couple of radio interviews. How can you go wrong?