Neil Young and Bluenote Cafe
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Neil Young … big band bluesman? Well, for a single album at least, yeah … and a convincing one too.
While some might dismiss Neil’s foray into blues as one of his eccentric “I’ll try anything” Geffen-era experiments (see the disappointing techno Trans and retro rockabilly Everybody’s Rockin’) based on 1988’s lone studio album This Note’s for You, the resulting belatedly released live double disc package shows it was far more substantial. Many have forgotten the kerfuffle around MTV not playing Young’s clip for the title track because it mocked their artists and sponsors (it later won the network’s Best Video of the Year). But despite the dustup, the album didn’t do much for Young’s reputation. It has since been overlooked amongst the sheer volume of the rest of his catalog, so this often electrifying document of the tour with his nine man, horn dominated backing band is somewhat of a revelation.
No one was looking for the next Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in ’88, let alone from a rootsy folk rocker like Young. But as we know, he never cared about anyone’s expectations and follows his own idiosyncratic muse, wherever it leads. Thankfully, this was one rollicking, expansive unit featuring a six piece brass section that pushes the music forward. The 21 song set, the eleventh in Young’s “Archive Performance Series,” runs over 2 ¼ hours and notably, cherry picks the best performances from eleven gigs during 11/87-8/88. Kudos to whoever dug through the tapes and grabbed these selections — seven of which have never been on album in any form — that find this outfit consistently cooking with a fire and passion Young doesn’t always display.
From the opening rarity “Welcome to the Big Room,” to the closing, rearranged 19 minute “Tonight’s the Night” (not a logical choice to unleash with this particular project, but it works), Young and his “Ten Men Workin’” deliver the rocking blues goods as powerfully, and often more so, than established acts in that field. Oddly, three songs from the studio release are not reprised, and some of the new selections such as the plodding “Doghouse,” are weak. But the playing is never less than explosive, Young sounds absolutely plugged in and what seems to be unretouched audio is alive and crisp. One surprise is a passionate version of Buffalo Springfield’s “On the Way Home,” which Young wrote but didn’t sing in its original form. Previously unavailable songs such as “Crime of the Heart” may not be classics, but even with some clichés—musically and lyrically — are more substantial than simple genre exercises.
Young’s formidable, well-established lead guitar skills are spotlighted throughout and his quivering voice makes an oddly appropriate foil for this tough music. There aren’t many ballads but the creeping, eight minute “Twilight” skillfully mixes jazz, rock, soul and blues and displays just how multi-faceted this group is.
Even diehard Neil Young fans may not fully appreciate this offshoot in his bulging catalog. But this remarkably vibrant and immediate live compilation shows that Young took this side road very seriously and it was more than just a forgettable, momentary quirk in his diverse and winding career.