Live at Massey Hall 1971 Label: Reprise
The latest in the Neil Young Archives Series is a doozy: Neil, solo unplugged at piano and guitar, before the concept of "MTV Unplugged" came and went. Returning home to Canada, at the absolute peak of his career right before Harvest came out. The most significant cuts are all here: "Heart of Gold," "Don't Let it Bring You Down," "Ohio," "Down by the River," "I am a Child," "Old Man." The editing's good but not cut to the bone, so you get guitar tuning between songs, there's a little storytelling, and they left in some funny asides, such in his as his explanation of "Old Man" being written about the ancient cowboy that stayed on when he bought his ranch, down stateside: "I never should've started messing with that thing," he says wryly about the property. Best of all was Young's castigation of a fan distracting him by shooting flash pictures – and his tact drawing its own round of applause. This stuff doesn't get in the way, it's a mirror onto Young's personality and a microcosm of his songs: Firm but gentle, subtle yet clear.
It's funny how recordings and careers work: Fans never get a complete picture – or even a half-picture – of an artist's creative output, as the music industry focuses on "the next album" and leaves a lot of tape in its wake. Like, Monet and Manet often painted many versions of the same great painting, and their students travel from museum to museum to understand the slight differences in each. But with rock-n-roll, us fans get one definitive version of a song and measure all others against it, never mind the stuff the artist might be on at the time, or the technical glitches a producer might have covered up with knob-twiddling band-aids.
What does all this have to do with Neil Young? Soon after this Toronto gig, Young made some recordings in Nashville while hanging out with Johnny Cash. He made some more in London with the symphony. He thought they were great. His producer, David Briggs, heard this Massey Hall gig and said "Dude, this is your next record." Young didn't even bother playing the tapes because he was so focused on his Nashville and London work, some of which became classic-rock staples. In hindsight, Briggs at least had an argument – this spontaneous, stripped-down performance shows these songs in a gorgeous new light, and the 2007 remastering makes them sound clean and crisp.
While it's hard to say Harvest should not have come out, this record makes a compelling devil's-advocate debate. That is enough reason to reissue this performance 36 years after the fact.