Since I first had learned about it a few weeks ago, I had been looking forward to the latest release by Neil Young, which came out Friday, March 26. Not only is Young Shakespeare a brilliant title, but it’s yet another highlight from Young’s archives. The live album and concert film comes only four weeks after Way Down in the Rust Bucket, which captures a terrific November 1990 live performance with Crazy Horse I previously reviewed here, and four months following the massive box set Neil Young Archives Volume II: 1972–1976.
Young Shakespeare documents an acoustic solo concert at the Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, Conn. on January 22, 1971. Neil Young was 25 years old at the time and had just entered what arguably is the best period of his solo career. Only four months earlier, he had released After the Gold Rush. Harvest, On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night were still about one, three and four years into the future, respectively.
Part of Young’s Journey Through the Past solo tour, the Shakespeare gig happened only three days after the famous Massey Hall show in Toronto Canada. The latter concert was captured on Live at Massey Hall 1971, which came out in March 2007 as the second release from Young’s Archives Performance Series. A vast amount of additional albums have since appeared in the series. If I see this correctly, Young Shakespeare is the second release of Volume 03, even though it’s registered as Volume 03.5. Well, I’m not an archivist.
As reported by NME, initially, video footage of the concert was filmed by German television at the time, but it never aired. Only bits and pieces recorded by visitors that night had been floating around among Young fans. Young considers the gig as superior to the Massey Hall show, calling it “a more calm performance, without the celebratory atmosphere of Massey Hall” on his archives website last year. “Young Shakespeare’ is a very special event,” he added. “To my fans, I say this is the best ever. ‘Young Shakespeare’ is the performance of that era. Personal and emotional, for me, it defines that time.”
I think Young may be right. The true magic of Young Shakespeare isn’t the set list. Neil Young fans have heard these songs a million times before. What I find fascinating are his announcements that illustrate what went through his mind at the time. They also convey Young’s great sense of humor. The entire gig comes across as very intimate. It’s almost like you’re in the same room with Young, and he’s chatting and cracking jokes while tuning his guitar for the next song. How about some music?
The first tune I’d like to call out is one of my all-time favorites: The Needle and the Damage Done. Mind you, when Young performed the song that night, it had not been recorded yet. I was included on his fourth studio album Harvest released in February 1972.
Dance Dance Dance is a track from Crazy Horse’s eponymous debut album that came out in February 1971. At the time of the Shakespeare gig, it was another yet-to-be-released tune. Young cheerfully calls it hoedown music.
Here’s a medley of A Man Needs a Maid and Heart of Gold, performed on the piano. Young introduces it by saying he hasn’t played the piano for a long time and usually screws it up. He cheerfully adds, “But you’ve never heard it before anyway, so you probably think that’s the way it is, and it’ll be alright.” Obviously, Young was correct. Both songs would appear on Harvest.
In addition to yet-to-be released songs at the time, Young played some old tunes. After all, his solo tour was titled Journey Through the Past. Here’s one of them, Down by the River, a song from his second album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere released in May 1969.
The last track I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer Sugar Mountain. Young wrote this song on November 12, 1964, which was his 19th birthday. The tune’s first official release was a live version, which became the b-side of Young’s first solo single The Loner from February 1969. It’s always been on of my favorite Neil tunes. It also cracks me up when Young says, “If you don’t know the words…just, you know, you’re all university students. Just memorize them after the first time!”
Here’s the full track list:
1. Tell Me Why
2. Old Man
3. The Needle and the Damage Done
5. Dance Dance Dance
6. Cowgirl in the Sand
7. A Man Needs a Maid/Heart of Gold
8. Journey Through the Past
9. Don’t Let It Bring You Down
11. Down by the River
12. Sugar Mountain
NME notes Young Shakespeare is only predated by footage from Young’s gigs at New York’s Café Feenjon in June 1970, and the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert at Fillmore East in March 1970. Obviously, there’s also the aforementioned Live at Massey Hall 1971, so I assume NME referred to video recordings. The new release is available on CD, vinyl and major streaming platforms. The DVD is available exclusively in Young’s own store.
Sources: Wikipedia; NME; YouTube