Let's face it. For all the different types of music and genre experiments he has tried over the years — and they've included everything from country to rockabilly to Devo-inspired techno-pop — Neil Young is really best known for just two things.
Those would be the full-on, amps-cranked-to-eleven rock shredding he does most often with Crazy Horse on albums like Rust Never Sleeps and Ragged Glory, and the quieter, generally more introspective territory he mines every so often with guys like Ben Keith and the Stray Gators on albums like 1972's commercial high watermark, Harvest, and it's 1992 sequel, Harvest Moon.
As part of his ongoing Archives Performance Series, Neil Young has just released Dreamin' Man Live '92, a live album consisting entirely of acoustic performances of the songs which eventually became Harvest Moon.
Since the performances are all taken from shows recorded before the album actually came out, this is not so much a fully realized album as it is a document of the artist trying out his then-new material on a live audience. So the question is, how do you improve upon what many Neil Young fans have long since come to regard as perfection?
For anyone familiar with Harvest Moon, one of the first things you'll notice about Dreamin' Man Live '92 is the difference in the sequencing. The only songs which maintain their positions on Harvest Moon here are the title track (#4) and "Old King" (#8).
The other thing you may notice, though, is the much smaller arrangements. Stripped of any studio sheen — not to mention the backing of Ben Keith and the rest of the Stray Gators — all that's left is Neil's voice, guitar, and the occasional piano and harmonica. This is definitely bare-bones Neil Young.
In the case of "Harvest Moon," what this means is you may find yourself missing those cymbal brushes, backing vocals, and especially that lonesome pedal steel that lend so much to that song's lyrical imagery of a gorgeous summer night under wide-open, starlit skies. I know I did. To his credit, Neil does nail the electric guitar part on his acoustic, though.
The backing vocals are likewise missed on songs like "Unknown Legend," and especially on "War Of Man." However, in the case of the latter, the lack of choir vocals only serves to better bring out the lonesome cry of Young's guitar and voice. What once sounded so lush on Harvest Moon seems far better suited to a more desolate sounding album like On The Beach here. As much I loved the Harvest Moon version, I think I may actually like this one better.
In fact, once you get past the differences, many of Harvest Moon's best songs become new revelations in these stripped-down arrangements. Played alone on the piano, "Such A Woman" takes on an almost hymn-like quality. "Natural Beauty" is likewise another track which sounds more powerful in a solo voice and guitar arrangement. I have to admit I still miss that steel guitar on "Hank To Hendrix," though.
Although Dreamin' Man Live '92 will never be mistaken for a replacement for the original Harvest Moon, these early, embryonic versions of its songs make for a very worthy companion piece to that classic album.