While his fans continue to patiently wait for Archives — the massive ten-DVD boxed set that Neil Young has been working on and promising to deliver for what seems like forever — one of the nicer benefits of his long, arduous search through the vaults is that it has yielded live gems like this one.
As was the case with Live At Fillmore East and Live At Massey Hall before it, this latest installment from the Neil Young Archives series captures a legendary performance for the first time in its entirety. In this particular case, it also comes from a pivotal point in Young's early career, where the artist was in between his gigs with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and was just days away from releasing his first album as a solo artist. At this point, the long, extraordinary career that was still to come was something Neil Young himself probably couldn't have even imagined.
Which is just one of many reasons why Sugar Mountain – Live At Canterbury House 1968 is such a great record. Here we see Neil Young, alone on his acoustic guitar, performing in a completely relaxed atmosphere that sounds as warm at times as your own living room (thanks in no small part to the DVD audio). When the emcee announces Neil Young, he even expresses surprise at the size of the crowd, saying he didn't expect so many people to show up.
For his part, Neil Young shows a rarely seen humorous side in his often-lengthy raps between songs, joking about everything from the length of his hair to his fondness for classic cars. Knowing him as the rock legend that we do now, the effect is a somewhat disarming one that goes far beyond mere intimacy. It's quite frankly a little weird to see an artist of Neil Young's stature connecting with an audience this completely. Which is what makes Sugar Mountain – Live At Canterbury House 1968 stand out from any live Neil Young album you will ever hear.
As for the actual performances, you've certainly heard songs like "On The Way Home," "Sugar Mountain," "Mr. Soul" and the rest before. Just never like this. "Broken Arrow," which has always been one of Young's most gorgeous songs anyway, becomes a brand new revelation here. Stripped down to the core of Young's guitar and famously quavering voice, the refrains of "did you see them" and "hello, Broken Arrow" sound almost like a desperate plea compared to the version recorded by Buffalo Springfield. The way Neil's guitar duplicates the piano parts of the studio version is also pretty amazing.
The usually rocking "Mr. Soul" becomes much more dark and foreboding here, stripped to an essential foundation of minor chords — which Neil really lays into at times — as Neil sings the famous lines about how "the clown does the trick of disaster" with a quiet intensity that puts the words into much sharper focus. "Expecting To Fly" is likewise a much lonelier sounding song here, with the singer expressing the romantic regret of the song in a quieter, yet stronger way than on the studio version.
Of the three live records released in the Archives series thus far, Sugar Mountain – Live At Canterbury House 1968 is by far the most satisfying. Not only does it capture a very young Neil Young in just about as raw an environment as it gets, it also shows the artist connecting with his audience in a way that has rarely, if ever been seen coming from an artist of Neil Young's iconic standing.
The latest word on that Archives box by the way, is that it will be out on February 24. Judging by the trailer film included on the DVD here, it also looks pretty amazing. Still, I'll actually believe when I see it. In the meantime, for Neil Young fans, Sugar Mountain – Live At Canterbury House 1968 is an essential buy.