It’s official. The Archives have been opened.
As first tipped here last month, Neil Young finally began the arduous process of releasing his long-rumored Archives Series this week. Said to number some hundreds of hours of rare and unreleased recordings, the Archives have been discussed in one form or another as a potential Neil Young project dating back to at least around the time the three disc Decade anthology was released in the 1970’s.
On numerous occasions since, the Archives have been rumored as everything from several pricey multiple disc boxed sets, to a series of gradually released collections much in the same vein as Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series.
Apparently opting for the latter, with this week’s release of Live At The Fillmore East March 6 & 7, 1970, they are rumors no more. But in typical Neil Young fashion, this week’s release comes with the obligatory curve ball. Live At The Fillmore East 1970 is actually credited as being part of something represented by a Marvel Comics-like logo on the sleeve’s upper left hand corner called “NYA:PS.” It stands for Neil Young Archives: Performance Series, which suggests an offshoot series concentrating solely on live performances documented through the years.
To which I can only say, fine by me.
But this set is noteworthy for yet another reason. Live At The Fillmore East 1970 in fact, represents the first available live recording of the original Crazy Horse, when Neil was sharing guitar and vocals with the late Danny Whitten. The subject of several latter Neil Young songs such as “The Needle And The Damage Done,” and much of the album Tonight’s the Night, Whitten died of a drug overdose in 1972.
It’s easy to forget that Crazy Horse was once an actual band who recorded their own albums, in addition to collaborating with Neil Young. It is particularly easy to do so, when — in recent years anyway — the only time you see them is every couple of years when Neil Young trots them out for an album and a tour. Most often these days, you’ll hear Crazy Horse backing a cranked to eleven Neil Young for projects like Ragged Glory or the tours captured on albums like Live Rust and Weld.
Crazy Horse played plenty loud back when Live At The Fillmore East 1970 was recorded too. But on this live album, they sound much more like an actual band, than merely backup for Neil’s guitar-shredding with Old Black. You can actually hear the sort of genuine musical interplay here — particularly between Young and Whitten — that is closer in spirit to the loose jamming heard on the electric side of Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s live Four Way Street album, which, perhaps not coincidentally, was also recorded in 1970.
Apparently touring behind the 1969 release Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the songs of that album account for fully one half of the setlist here, making up three of the six songs on this album. Danny Whitten takes center stage on vocals and guitar for “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown,” showing the real promise he once had on a song he also wrote. Neil turns in a fine pre-release version of the always gorgeous sounding “Winterlong” which takes on a more electric feel here.
But as on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere itself, it is those two blockbuster jams — you know the songs I’m talking about here — that overshadow everything else on this CD. You may have heard “Down By The River” and “Cowgirl In The Sand” done live with Crazy Horse before, but never quite like this.
In scorching versions running well over twelve minutes apiece, the guitar interplay between Young and Whitten heard on the original studio versions is taken to epic lengths here. It’s easy to forget just how much those “ooh, la, la” backing vocals added to “Down By The River” on the original. Or how Young’s choppy, staccato leads we’re made all the more effective when slicing through Whitten’s own guitars punctuating the rhythm.
For its own part, “Cowgirl” goes nearly fifteen minutes, building the tension steadily throughout before climaxing in crescendo upon crescendo of cacophonous sound. Towards the end there is so much going on, Neil’s screaming guitar occasionally gets lost in the mix. As Whitten and Jack Nitzsche admirably try to keep pace throughout on guitar and electric piano respectively, Neil goes off into one of those trance places near the end. The end result is just nothing short of magnificent noise.
When it’s finally over, the CD continues to run for several minutes so you can actually hear a spent audience as it attempts to catch back its collective breath. Incidentally, if anybody can tell me the name of the song played over the PA as this set finally goes to fade, I’ve got your first round next time you’re in Seattle.
One final compliment I’d like to pay Live At The Fillmore East 1970 is on it’s rather modest, but nice packaging. Designed like an old gatefold vinyl sleeve, it actually folds out to reveal an old faded-from-aging newspaper review of the show. The review reveals that the show was opened by the Steve Miller Band and a Bitches Brew era Miles Davis (who I didn’t think opened for anybody). The review itself is pretty funny in retrospect as the writer comments on Neil being an “enormously talented performer and songwriter,” while adding that his “lyrics sound uncomfortably like Bob Dylan’s work circa ’63-’64.”
If Live At The Fillmore East 1970 is any indication of what lies ahead from the Neil Young Archives, this is going to be one hell of a great series, “performance” and otherwise. I can’t wait.