Neil Young/Young Shakespeare/Reprise
Four and a Half Stars out of Five
So named for the theater in Stratford, Connecticut where this concert was filmed and recorded on January 22, 1971, Young Shakespeare is the latest in a series of seemingly never-ending archival efforts plucked from Neil Young’s personal vaults and released for the first time to the public. Young’s been active of late, with some half dozen offerings shared in the past year alone, each encompassing a different—and defining— stage of his career. This particular album becomes one of his most essential efforts yet, and by Young’s own estimation, it’s his best yet.
It’s hard to argue with such a profound statement, given that it contains a wealth of seminal songs from his early catalog, among them, a pair plied from the massively successful After the Gold Rush, early classics culled from his contributions to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and his initial work with Crazy Horse and a handful of tunes that weren’t slated for any album in particular. Most surprisingly, it also shares four tracks destined for Harvest, which, at that point, was still several months away.
Performed solo on acoustic guitar and on piano (which, he admits, he’d only taken up recently), Young is at his forlorn finest, a sensitive singer/songwriter adept at his craft. He was only 25 at the time, a remarkably youthful age considering the vast catalog he had already amassed. Consequently, there’s the slightest hint of irreverence in the spoken word intros that accompany each song as well as the self-effacing attitude shared in the asides. However, once he dives into the material, his earnest intents fully coalesce as he treats each piece with the reverence initially intended. “Old Man” makes for an especially auspicious entry, given that the youngish Young is peering ahead to a future he could hardly have imagined at the time.
Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you were, he sings prophetically.
There are other lessons shared as well, none more pointedly than when he laments his lost friend and Crazy Horse confederate Danny Whitten on “Needle and the Damage Done,” a cautionary tale that’s still profoundly prescient even 50 years later. So too, “Ohio,” which documented the horror of the Kent State massacre and had been rush released by CSNY just six months earlier, retains a sense of urgency and emergency even in this stripped-down setting. He could hardly have known what tragedies would unfold in the decades to come or the terror and tumult that Watergate, 9-11, Covid, the crisis in leadership, and the division and despair that followed in their wake.
Nevertheless, for the moment anyway, Young was still at the threshold of an ever-enveloping career, a superstar in the making whose flame never waned. The gift shared by this Young Shakespeare were clearly quite profound.