LP Review: Neil Young’s Album From His Vault, ‘Hitchhiker’

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“You ready Briggs?” – Neil Young to producer David Briggs, August 11, 1976, Malibu

It would be easy to look at the track listing of ‘Hitchhiker’ and be confused. “Wait a minute, I’ve seen all of these tracks before…is this a greatest hits album?”…I can almost hear you say. And yes, eventually most of these tracks came out on other albums… But on a magical night, August 11th, 1976 Neil Young entered a studio in Malibu with producer David Briggs and cut all 10 of these tracks. He and Briggs had made a habit of going into the studio, on nights with a full moon and cutting music. According to Wikipedia, Neil wouldn’t have anything prepared, he’d just sit down with an acoustic guitar and harmonica and say, “Time to turn on the tap…” Purportedly, he’d only pause in recording the songs that night to take breaks for “weed, beer or coke.” If that’s how Neil turns on the “genius” tap, I think we need to get a friendly beer distributor to send a loaded beer truck over to Neil’s… maybe pick up a dealer or two on the way… I’m not condoning anything, just saying though…

Neil Young is one of those rare artists, like Dylan, Springsteen and yes, Prince who can go into a studio and cut a full album’s worth of material and then, strangely, shelve it. There are songs that appear on 1989’s ‘Freedom’ that were originally written and laid down in the mid-70s. I was always baffled when I heard bootlegs, as to why Neil wouldn’t have put out these songs/albums that he’d cut when he recorded them. What was he thinking? I’d ask myself. In the case of the all-night session for ‘Hitchhiker’ he submitted the results to his record company and they rejected the album as sounding too much like a demo. Re-record this stuff with a band they said… If we need any proof record company guys don’t get art, just listen to this album. This album would have been a great appendix to his “Ditch Trilogy” and would have been better than the ‘Stills/Young’ album he actually put out in 1976.

I’ve heard a lot of bootleg, demo type stuff. One needs only to turn to Bob Dylan’s box set ‘The Cutting Edge’ to hear an artist cutting demos and shaping songs. Typically you get a lot of studio chatter… ‘Hitchhiker”s songs sounds like a complete set of songs. There’s no start/stop moments here. These songs don’t feel like demos. These are fully realized songs. Give credit to the only other person in the studio that night, producer David Briggs, for catching the immediacy and brilliance of these songs as they were being formed. Briggs literally captured Neil’s lightning in a bottle or, well, on tape. For the most part, these songs were eventually released in the form they were originally recorded in August of 76… proof these tunes don’t sound like demos. What’s great about ‘Hitchhiker’ is this album, from deep in Neil’s vault, gives us the chance to finally hear all of these songs as a set. This is the way to listen to these songs, as a complete piece, versus a track or two on scattered albums. That’s what makes this essential Young listening, instead of something for completists.

“Pocahontas,” a song so epic even Johnny Cash covered it during the American Recording period with Rick Rubin, kicks off this album. I’ve always thought it had dreamy, trippy lyrics… perhaps Neil’s consumption the evening it was recorded explains that feeling. It was eventually released on ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’ It’s the same track found here, although Neil overdubbed some weird squeaky sound-effects onto it, for reasons unclear, on it’s eventual ‘Rust’ release. I love the version here, stripped to the bone. Also from ‘Rust’ is “Ride My Llama,” basically as it appears on ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’ One of the revelations here is the original version of “Powderfinger,” here, acoustic. “Powderfinger” is one of my favorite tracks, not only from ‘Rust,’ but ever. The epic electric guitar on the ‘Rust’ version seems to imitate the violence that occurs in the lyrics, like Hendrix playing “Machine Gun.” Who are these men on “the white boat comin’ up the river,” and why are they armed. Are they revenuers coming to seize the still? Why is our 22 year old hero firing shots from “daddy’s rife” which felt “reassuring” in our hero’s hand? Supposedly, Neil Young offered the tune to Lynyrd Skynyrd before their fateful plane crash. I can’t imagine it getting any better than Neil’s version… Neil has always had two sides to his music – the epic electric, usually with Crazy Horse and the quiet acoustic of say, ‘Harvest.’ This version of the song encapsulates that dichotomy perfectly.

“Captain Kennedy” was another great tune, released eventually on ‘Hawks And Doves,’ in much the same version as here. “Campaigner,” the excellent track here was released on Neil’s epic greatest hits record, ‘Decade.’ “Even Richard Nixon has got soul…” Does he? “Human Highway” was also cut that August night in Malibu but not released until ‘Comes a Time.’ “Country Waltz” was released in a different form on ‘American Stars ‘N Bars,’ which by this point in the song list you have to wonder… why wasn’t this released in 1976. The craziest thing to me was the version of the title track, “Hitchhiker” was released in a weird version on ‘Le Noise’ the 2010 album produced by Daniel Lanois. I’ve always felt like ‘Le Noise’ was a missed opportunity… I’ve often referred to it as “Le Crap.” The version here is so far superior… Again, I wonder how this song took so long to see the light of day…

The song that is a real revelation to me was “Give Me Strength.” It, and “Hawaii” are the only tracks I don’t believe have ever seen release on a Neil Young album. “Give Me Strength” is an amazing track and frankly, worth the price of admission here. “Hawaii” is an OK track, and I can see perhaps why it was left in the can. It’s an album track, nothing revelatory.

Again, the fact that most of these tracks, 8 of 10, came out in some form or other over the years may make this album seem superfluous. But trust me, it’s not. This form, all acoustic, cut together as a piece, is the way to hear this record and to hear these songs. This is essential for any Neil Young fan. Pick this one up asap.

Chris Cornell, who toward the last part of his life was recording acoustic-based songs, and then returning to Soundgarden for loud rock n’ roll said he kind of got how Neil could go from loud rock to acoustic. It was great to have the option… This album is some of the best of Neil’s acoustic, quieter, non-Crazy Horse side. “Remember me to my love, I know I’ll miss her…” I hope he’ll pry open the vault for more of this! It’s truly a treasure.

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The 10 Concerts I Should Have Skipped

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 I will start by stating the obvious. I love listening to music. I have spent hours sitting around my home listening to vinyl, CD and now iPod versions of albums. There is nothing more satisfying than finding something new to listen to, something that gives me the same thrill as the first time I heard “Some Girls.” As you may have guessed from reading through the posts of B&V, another thing I love to do is go out and see live music. I love watching musicians perform whether it’s a local band in a small bar all the way up to seeing national acts perform at a festival. I think any band that you want to consider “great” has to not only deliver on album, but they have to deliver the goods live. There are some bands I didn’t really like until I saw them live, like say, The Stone Temple Pilots or Bush. When I see a great band live, something just clicks.

Of course, I’ve had the opposite happen too. I’ve gone out with the expectation that I was going to see a great concert, only to come home baffled or disappointed. It’s rare, considering how many shows I’ve seen over the years that this happens, but as I was pondering this I realized there are 10 shows that frankly, I just wish I hadn’t attended. I try to stay positive at B&V but I felt chronicling these misfires was important. Now, there are different reasons for a bad concert. The band may have been tired or indifferent in this small market. There are occasional equipment failures. Sometimes it’s the choice of material performed. And alas, there are those “self-inflicted” wounds, where I was the problem, not the band. Here are my 10 examples, where maybe staying home and watching Kojak reruns might have been a better idea….

The “Self-Inflicted Wound” Shows 

  • Neil Young & Crazy Horse: This is the show that got away from me. They were playing Kemper in 1986, billing themselves as “The Third Greatest Garage Band In the World.” From all accounts from my friends I attended with, this was a great show. We started drinking in Manhattan, Ks and continued the entire drive into KC. I’m told I threw up and promptly started making out with the girl in front of me… who was on a date. I tried to rush the stage and ran into the barricade, falling face first to the floor where the booze pinned me down. I was rightly shown the door by security. I am not proud of this one…. To describe me as hammered is… generous. I’ve never been that drunk for another show.
  • Scorpions/Deep Purple/Dio – This one, I can at least blame on my friend Steven. He and his brother-in-law had been drinking and partying pretty heavily that day. The Rock Chick was pretty excited to see the Scorpions, but I didn’t realize how much she was into them. We fucked around with the 2 drunks so long, I missed Dio. I saw him walk off stage flashing the devil-horns, that was it. Deep Purple came out and I’m not sure what Ian Gillian was celebrating but he was dressed like a gay pirate in capris and a sleeveless t-shirt (not that there’s anything wrong with gay pirates, mind you). The Scorps came out and my two buddies fell apart. They were our ride, yes the drunks were driving, so to the Rock Chick’s never ending scorn, we had to leave.

The Artist Chooses Bad Material

  • Boston, in Boston (well, really Worchester): Boston took what, 7 years to put out their weak third album, “Third Stage.” We had all grown up on “Boston” and “Don’t Look Back.” Boston still threw a long shadow in those days. I thought seeing them on their home turf would be fantastic. Boy, was I wrong. After 2 or 3 great songs, they decided to play “Third Stage” front to back, in it’s entirety, like it was fucking “Quadrophenia” or something. I actually fell asleep during that part of the show. Asleep at a concert, while sober?
  • Neil Young: I love Neil Young but my luck with this guy has been horrible over the years. I did see him on the CSNY tour and he was fabulous, but solo, I always crap out. I made the mistake of seeing him on the “Greendale” tour. Like Boston, he played the entire album, front to back. Yuck. Can we please leave the “rock operas” to The Who, folks? I made the mistake of taking the Rock Chick, who is not a big Neil fan to begin with… Needless to say, I now have to play my Neil Young when she’s out of the house. The encore was good…

Just Plain Bad Shows

  • Joe Walsh, circa 1980: Joe came to KC as a headline act. My high school concert buddy, Brewster, who later betrayed me and took someone else with him to Springsteen’s “The River” Tour, yes that wound still stings, called me and said, “we gotta go, Rocky Mountain Way, man.” Joe comes out and he’s on fire, he’s laying down blistering solo’s, raising the roof off the place. After setting that furious pace during the opening 30 minutes, he said, “We’re gonna turn it down a little bit, but don’t worry we’ll bring it back up…” And I’m still waiting for him to turn it up. He mellowed the place down for the next hour. He came out for an encore and I yelled, “Walk Away” in an attempt to get him to play that wonderful James Gang chestnut… Unfortunately Joe took me literally, and played 1 mellow song and uh, walked away.
  • Rush, “Moving Pictures” Tour: My first time seeing Rush was a disaster. They’d incorporated keyboards into their music but were baffled on how to incorporate them live. I did see them a few years later, on the “Signals” tour, and despite it being a weaker album, the show as much, much better. Every time I’ve seen them since, it’s been better than that first one… Wait, we’re still talking about music here aren’t we?
  • R.E.M., “Monster” Tour: Again, another great album by a great band and I just felt bored shitless at this show. I think R.E.M. is a band better suited to a club or small theater than a huge outdoor amphitheater. Stipe’s state presence was off this night. He sang one song turned around facing the drummer. I looked around the expansive lawn, where we were camped out in the GA section and small knots of people had gathered where they were all talking. The music wasn’t holding their interest.
  • Ryan Adams, “Cardinology”: Ryan played a truncated version of the shows he’d been playing in bigger cities. He game zero fucks about the KC audience… No effort. It’s frankly been hard to listen to his stuff since then without this show shading it. Effort matters, even out here in the provinces people.
  • Eric Clapton, circa 2005: Went to Dallas with my buddy Steven to see Clapton. I seem to recall this was a birthday gift from Steven, so I don’t want to be too harsh. Any fire that was in Clapton as a performer or guitarist is completely gone. He ended the show by covering “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Sigh.
  • Bob Dylan, circa 2004: Merle Haggard opened this show and I thank God every day I saw ol’ Hags live. He had a voice like smooth whiskey. Then Dylan came out. I’m the biggest Dylan fanatic you’re gonna find and it took me forever to identify the songs he was playing. I still don’t know how a show could go this wrong. His vocals were buried way down in the mix. I had to read the playlist on a website the next day to find out what I’d heard. My buddy Drew has seen Dylan on a night when he’s on and said it was great… I was not so lucky.

I don’t ever want to discourage anybody from seeing a live show. Support live music, folks. These examples serve merely as a cautionary tale about how it can go wrong. Most of these artists I’ve seen again and the shows were better. There’s nothing like the magic that happens when the lights go down, and that first chord gets struck. The anticipation, the presence of truly skilled, great musicians is just amazing. It’s a communal, almost religious vibe… Unfortunately, on rare occasions the sermon gets lost… If you have any examples of bad shows, please share in the comments section.

Cheers!

Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP

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“Fourteen junkies, too weak to work…” – Neil Young, “Time Fades Away”

There are certain albums that for various reasons have taken on a certain “mystique” over the years. In most cases it’s albums that don’t get released. Prince had “The Black Album,” an album that was supposedly so perverse it couldn’t be released… we have to save the children from such sex talk in music (cue the PMRC). Years after the rumor of the album, Prince finally released it and it was, to be generous, meh. Ryan Adams’ record company rejected “Love Is Hell” because they thought it was a downer so he released “Rock N Roll” instead. The fact that his record company rejected “Love Is Hell” brought so much interest in this supposedly “dark” album, that the record company finally released it. It’s an ok Ryan Adams LP… I mean, dark is kind of his thing. You’ll never find Ryan Adams being played at a party here at the B&V house, that’s for sure. One could describe Ryan’s music as, “Music to Overdose to.”

Usually albums only carry this kind of heavy mystique if someone dies during or shortly after the albums release. “Blackstar” by David Bowie and “You Want It Darker” by Leonard Cohen will always carry a little more weight because they can be read as an artistic farewell to the world and to their fans. Jimi Hendrix’ last recordings are always heralded as people wonder, what might have been. People point to Stevie Ray Vaughn’s final song on his final album, “Riviera Paradise” as a signal that he was headed into an all new creative direction that would have changed music and guitar as we know it… had he not passed away in that tragic helicopter crash. It’s like a painter whose paintings become more valuable after they’ve died. I’m surprised more rock stars don’t fake their death more often but that makes me sound like an agent hustling for coins.

Of all the artists around, other than maybe Bob Dylan, Neil Young has more than his share of “mysterious,” unreleased albums. “Chrome Dreams” is an oft bootlegged, amazing record that Neil chose not to release in 1977. It would have been as big as “Harvest” in my opinion, which may be why Neil chose not to put it out. That “fame thing” never worked out too well for Neil. He said in the liner notes of “Decade” that “Harvest” found him in the middle of the road and very popular so he chose to steer into the ditch, “It was a rougher ride, but you meet more interesting people there” (I believe is the direct quote). He’s put out most of the songs on other albums, but taken as a whole “Chrome Dreams” would have stood with some of his best work.

Of all of Neil Young’s unreleased and released albums, the one that always had the most intrigue for me, for some reason, was “Time Fades Away.” Part of the problem was you simply couldn’t find the record. I could never get my hands on it. After the initial release, Neil refused to release it on vinyl or any other format so copies of the album were really hard to find. Neil basically disavowed the record. My college roommate Drew was the only guy I know who could have been capable of even finding a copy such were his “completist” tendencies, but I don’t think even he had a copy. It was like you had to “know a guy” to even hear the thing, which I never did.

The backstory alone is enough to draw a rock and roll obsessive like me in… Neil Young, fresh from his twin triumphs of “After the Gold Rush,” and the even bigger success of “Harvest” was set to go on tour. It’s hard to overstate how popular Neil Young became after “Harvest.” I heard a story once, that Dylan heard “Heart of Gold” on the radio and thought it was one of his songs. When he realized it was Neil Young, he felt ripped off and wrote “Forever Young” as some sort of angry, “you ripped me off, you dick” kind of a song. Who knows if that’s true. Anyway, Neil gathered members of his “Harvest” band, the Stray Gators, and invited Danny Whitten from one of his other backing bands, Crazy Horse to New York to rehearse. Unfortunately Danny Whitten, a very talented guitarist and songwriter in his own right, was addicted to heroin. He’d already been kicked out of Crazy Horse, who were working on their own without Neil, because of his drug addictions. Whitten just couldn’t “hack it” at the rehearsals. He was taking a lot of Valium to help him kick the heroin habit and it was just destroying his timing. Finally Neil had to tell Danny he was fired and gave him $50 and a plane ticket back to Los Angeles. That very night, the night Neil Young fired Danny Whitten, Danny was found dead from mixing alcohol and $50 worth of Valium. Enter…. guilt and despair.

So after releasing his biggest album, with thousands of adoring fans waiting to hear the soft rock troubadour of “Harvest” come out and sing “Heart of Gold,” Neil plugs in his electric guitar and attempted to conquer his demons. Oh, and he brought along the 8-track mobile recording machine to document the whole thing. At the time, one of his band members turned him onto tequila. Ah, tequila. As I used to say in my younger days, the authorities knew which drug to legalize. When I drink tequila, which I rarely do, if I drink too much of it, I’m either going to fight you or fuck you, and quite possibly, both at the same time. Add tequila to a depressed, fragile mental state like Neil Young was in and God knows what can happen. Apparently the fans were not impressed. Part of the problem with concert audiences is that it’s hard to play new, unheard music for a crowd. They want to hear the hits, songs they’re familiar with. This was especially true in 1973 when the crowds were not that sophisticated.

At long last, I discovered this “lost” live album on iTunes. I had always heard that the music on this album was all loud, screaming guitar. It was going to be all noise like “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black).” That is not exactly the case. The band did not get along well and Neil’s vocals were so fried he brought in Crosby and Nash to help sing harmonies, although, this wasn’t an album big on harmony. I will say, this is a very, very good Neil Young album, although I prefer the even darker music found on “Tonight’s the Night.” One might see this as a companion piece to “Tonight’s the Night” and “On The Beach” which are some of Neil’s darker works.

The album starts off with the raucous title track, which is one of the best here but I’ve always liked my Neil Young a little ragged. “Yonder Stands the Sinner” is another ragged rocker that jumps out at me and it’s followed by the great song “L.A.” (“city in the smog…”). But interspersed with those rockers are a couple of delicate, beautiful piano ballads, “Journey Through The Past” and “Love In Mind.” I never expected this kind of balladry from a guy on tequila. The crowd claps politely at the end of “Love In Mind” but you kind of feel they’re not thrilled.

The centerpiece of the album for me, is the beginning of what would be side 2 for you vinyl enthusiasts, “Don’t Be Denied.” It’s a a better autobiography than Neil’s book “Shakey.”It’s a long, mid tempo song about Neil’s love of and dedication to music. It tells his life story from being a bullied kid at school, to forming a band. It’s one of his best songs and coincidentally was recently covered beautifully by Norah Jones. It’s really the only hopeful bit of light in an otherwise dark album.

After the ballad, “The Bridge,” another lovely piano and harmonica song, Neil and the band launch into the epic, eight-minute “Last Dance.” I really like the ragged guitar riff in this song. Although, it’s so bleak that it wouldn’t have been out of place on “Tonight’s the Night.” At the end of the song, Neil just howls, “no, no, no…” When Neil sings, “Wake up, it’s time to go to work,” it’s with an utter lack of enthusiasm.

“Time Fades Away” is a portrait of an artist who is really suffering. And by sharing that pain with us through his art, he let’s we who are also suffering know we are not alone. That’s the power of an album like this. And powerful is the word I would use to describe this record. For anybody out there who likes to explore the musical backwaters of an artist’s catalog, like I do, this is must have music. Although, I wouldn’t recommend putting this on at Christmas… not a lot of Yule time joy here….

It’s a dark ride, folks. Stick together and take care of each other. Cheers!

Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame

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*Photo shamelessly borrowed from the Internet, gettyimages, Paul Bergen

I just love this photograph of Pearl Jam from their early days. The only guy who looks happy is the drummer, in the middle, and they fired him. Likely on the HR form it read something like: Reason for Dismissal: Cheerfulness or Enjoying the Fame.

My corporate overlords are asking me to travel quite a bit more and I haven’t been able to write as often as I’d like, my apologies. It has given me a lot more time to think about music… and lately I’ve been thinking about fame. Ah, Fame, it’s such a cruel, fickle beast. Bands often form, write music, tour and work hard to achieve financial stability and yes, fame. But once it happens many bands/artists don’t know how to deal with it. There are certain levels of fame that nobody is ready for. Not everybody can be the Beatles, who not only embraced their fame, seemed energized by it. Well, McCartney anyway, Lennon seemed somewhat unnerved by it all.

Fame has all kinds of effects on an artist and not always good ones. Many artists, feeling the pressure to repeat earlier heights of record sales crumble under the pressure. Many artists turn to drugs, alcohol or just plain break up the band. Or sometimes the effects of fame are even worse…bad juju indeed. There are as many reactions to fame as there are artists, I suppose.

Lately, I find myself thinking about those artists/bands who decided to take control, take the bull by the horns as they say, and purposely change the trajectory of their artistic arc. The artists who, commercially speaking, tried to take a dive. The goal seemed to be to thin the herd of rabid fans, hanging on every word. These acts literally altered their art (in my opinion) to reduce their fame…

Bob Dylan: After a two year period that saw Dylan “go electric” and record three classic masterpieces: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisted,” and “Blonde On Blonde” Dylan retreated to upstate New York to Woodstock (pre-festival fame Woodstock). This creative burst is beautifully documented on the box set, “The Cutting Edge” reviewed earlier in B&V. Dylan just wanted to get away, rest and spend some time with his wife and new family. Then, he had a motorcycle accident. Or did he? I’m not usually a “second shooter on the grassy knoll” guy, but I wonder if Dylan faked the whole thing to get a break in his crazy schedule. The guy was being touted as the “voice” of his generation. He was the appointed leader of the Hippy movement… heavy responsibility for a guy who is really just a singer… or a poet, depending on your outlook. After secluding himself in upstate NY and hanging out in a basement for a year with the Band, recording some pretty amazing music, but not really sharing it, Dylan emerged with a quiet, acoustic based “John Wesley Harding.” While considered a classic by critics, it was quite a dramatic departure from his three prior albums. It’s like Dylan rewrote the book on a career in music. He went on to record a country album, “Nashville Skyline.” He really didn’t recover commercially until “Blood On the Tracks” by which time his rabid audience had diminished and mellowed out.

Neil Young: Neil Young’s trajectory was similar to Dylan’s, perhaps without the messianic overtones… the 70’s were a more cynical decade after all. Young released “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” and then “After the Gold Rush” and joined CSNY. He was poised to explode. I don’t think he realized how big he was going to get when he delivered the mellow, extremely popular “Harvest.” You couldn’t get away from “Heart of Gold.” Neil said, on the liner notes of the excellent greatest hits package “Decade,” that he found himself in the middle of the road after “Harvest” and decided to steer his career into the ditch…he said he’d meet more interesting people there. He dismantled his following by delivering the live LP, “Time Fades Away,” which oddly seemed to declare war on his fans. Young was exorcising demons, but his fans were left to exorcise Neil.

Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen’s career has been a study in the art of controlling your fame. He released “Born To Run” and ended up on the cover of Time and Newsweek… after a 4 year absence due to legal issues with his management, he delivered the grim classic “Darkness On the Edge of Town.” Punk was prevalent and so he probably rode that wave, plus he was pissed about the court stuff and the four year absence. Finally, in 1979 he released “The River” which gave him his biggest seller to date… rather than capitalize on that success he retrenched with “Nebraska” an album I still struggle to listen to without being put on suicide watch. He finally reached his peak potential when he released “Born In the USA” but quickly retrenched to “Tunnel of Love.” Release something that makes you huge, follow up with a quiet personal album to make the crowds go away…it’s the best of both worlds.

Fleetwood Mac: Nobody saw the huge success of “Rumors” coming. Lindsey Buckingham, fueled by the punk movement took control of their next album and drove the band in experimental, weird directions. Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie apparently didn’t get the memo and continued to record solid mid tempo rock songs causing a very disjointed approach.”Tusk” is a masterpiece in my mind but it was heralded as a huge disappointment upon it’s release. I see it for what it was – Buckingham responding to the pressure of repeating “Rumors” by taking the band in a less commercial, artsy direction. When the LP doesn’t sell as much as the last one, you just say the audience didn’t “understand your creative vision.” It’s a great strategy really. Although Mick Fleetwood did drive out to Lindsey’s house after the reviews were in to say, “you blew it, mate.”

Prince: “1999” was such a breakthrough record for Prince. He, along with Michael Jackson, were one of the first black artists to breakthrough to a broad white audience. He followed up with the movie/LP “Purple Rain.” Prince, a control freak, whose goal had always been world domination, and who actually accomplished it, responded with the quirky, artsy “Around the World In a Day,” an album I bought the day it was released and sold a week later. Yeah, I was one of the fans Prince exiled from his fan base with that record. Prince never really regained his commercial/artistic mojo. That’s the risk when you purposely try to kill off your fame… sometimes you’re successful.

Nirvana: Kurt Cobain, almost 30 years after Dylan, was also tagged with that “voice of his generation” tag. Based on Dylan’s response to that in the 60s and what happened to Kurt, you might want to avoid that tag. After “Nevermind” seemingly destroyed everything that came before it and revolutionized music in a way that punk only dreamed of, Cobain felt painted into a corner. He had wanted to only be as big as say, Sonic Youth, not bigger than the Beatles. In response to the world-wide worship, Cobain and Nirvana delivered the abrasive album “In Utero” an album that was such an obvious attempt to drive fans away and yet it was still wildly popular. “Heart Shaped Box” is still my favorite Nirvana tune. Sadly Kurt never reconciled his fame and for a myriad of reasons ended up sadly ending his own life… the most tragic tale I’m gonna tell.

Pearl Jam: I read an interview with Eddie Vedder once, and he said they were playing a bar that had a free hamburgers in the parking lot while they were set to play. He got on stage in front of an empty room (everyone was eating outside), closed his eyes and when he opened them, the entire bar was full of enthusiastic fans. He went on to say that was how Pearl Jam’s world wide fame happened, seemingly in the blink of an eye. “Ten” was such a huge album and it’s follow up “Vs” despite the “us vs you” implied by the title, was just as popular. Finally PJ put out “Vitalogy” which I consider a classic but like “In Utero” it was a clear attempt to “thin the herd.” You only have to take one look at the picture above and you can tell these guys were uncomfortable with the fame that had resulted from their music. Eddie took these guys down a path that saw them stay a solid live draw, but their music has never sold like it did early in their career and I think that’s how Eddie wants it… Vedder’s only proper solo album was a ukele album…clearly not a guy looking for wide commercial success or additional attention…

That’s it for now folks. Did I miss anybody on this list? Please add your thoughts in the comments if you’re so inclined.

Have a great weekend! Cheers!

Review: Neil Young, “Bluenote Cafe” (Live)

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When I was coming up, Neil Young was quite a divisive figure in my rock and roll world. There were those of us who liked Neil and those who were as equally repelled by him. Generally the supporters of Neil Young were known as “males” while the haters on Neil were known as “females.” I don’t think I ever dated a single woman who said, “Hey, I know, put on some Neil Young.”

Neil’s music tends to get lumped into two categories and indeed there are two different styles he seems to return to more often than not. There is the acoustic side of Neil, the laid-back balladeer of “Harvest” and “After the Gold Rush”. Then we have the feedback-drenched, squalling guitar of Electric Neil most notably present when his once and future backing band Crazy Horse is playing with him.

Neil has never really seemed to care what critics or even fans seem to think about him or his music. In his superb 3 LP greatest hits compilation, “Decade” Neil wrote that after the huge success of “Heart of Gold” and the album “Harvest” put him in the middle of the road as a pop star, he decided he’d veer off into the “ditch” where it was a little more interesting. Critics were quick to seize on this and labeled the three albums he recorded after “Harvest” as “The Ditch Trilogy”. Those three albums, all recorded at a time of great personal upheaval in Neil Young’s life, “Time Fades Away”, “On the Beach”, and “Tonight’s the Night” are brilliant but could be somewhat confounding to the “Heart of Gold” casual listener.

All these years later Neil’s career can still be seen as confusing. His career has seen him take more left turns, blind alleys, dead ends, and attempted genre experiments than most other artists can even imagine. One thing is for certain, his career has never been linear. It’s more of a a hedge-maze. You can really get lost in there. It’s just fun to type the words “hedge-maze”.

The 80’s were a particularly difficult time for Neil Young fans. After the disappointing Crazy Horse record “Re-act-or” Neil veered left with a techno experimental album entitled “Trans”. Not even I can defend “Trans”. Then he veered in an entirely different direction with a rockabilly album “Everybody’s Rocking” with a backing band named, appropriately, “The Shocking Pinks”. Then he went full on country with “Old Ways”. I’m not sure but I think it was around that time that Neil’s record company, Geffen, sued him for “purposely making uncommercial music”. After the country record, Neil put out a couple of albums largely seen as clunkers, “Landing On Water” and “Life” which saw him reuniting with Crazy Horse. I bought both those albums but you have to be a real fan to like those records. They bear the bad production values of the times – too loud drumming, echo-y vocals. Sadly, I saw Neil and Crazy Horse on the tour in support of “Life” but I had a tad too much beer. All I can remember is throwing up and making out with some dude’s girlfriend in front of me. Que sera sera.

With a decade like that behind him it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise when Neil hired a 6-piece horn section, backed with Crazy Horse (Ralph Molina on drums, Billy Talbot on bass, and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on keyboards instead of his usual guitar) as his rhythm section and dubbed them “The Bluenotes”. I’ll say this about Neil, when he goes into a musical genre, he really commits. He wore a funny hat, a long coat and shades whenever he played with the Bluenotes. It was like he was in character. But man did they play the blues. The album they put out, “This Notes For You” actually garnered Neil’s highest critical praise he’d seen in quite some time. According to AllMusic, the critic’s warm response to the Bluenotes was because “all critics tend to stand in awe of the blues in whatever form it appears.” Well, if that’s true, and I’m no critic, I’m just a music fanatic, count me in. I love the way Neil played the blues on that album. Neil is such a superb and expressive guitar player, the blues fit him perfectly. Let’s face it, the blues is where they invented the guitar solo.

Which leads to the latest in Neil Young’s Archive Series, “The Bluenote Cafe”. Neil has put out a bunch of great archival concert recordings. I highly recommend “Live at the Fillmore East” a Crazy Horse show back when Danny Whitten was still alive. For the fans of his acoustic material there are 2 excellent concerts – “Live at Massey Hall” after he’d become a superstar and “Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House ’68” when he was still up and coming. Both are superb live albums culled from single shows. “The Bluenote Cafe” is a live album culled from a number of different shows, but it hangs together like a single concert.

I love this album. While the horn section is very prominent – the guitar is the star. Neil’s beautiful, black Gibson Les Paul is the true centerpiece here. Neil has always been known for extended guitar workouts like “Cortez the Killer” or “Down By the River”, and the blues is the perfect medium for him. I love the interplay between the guitar and the horns. Neil’s no stranger to writing sad songs, and his vocals are fabulous on the down-tempo, dirty blues tunes like “One Thing” and “Twilight”. The guitar work on “Twilight” truly makes it feel like the sun is going down and the world is turning gray…”the suns goin’ down on the long road home”… God I love that song.

There is a bunch of material on this live album that was written for “This Notes for You” but didn’t appear on that record. In some ways it’s like “Band of Gypsies” by Hendrix in that it’s a live album of almost exclusively new material. “Ordinary People” is an epic 13-minute jam that didn’t see proper release until “Chrome Dreams 2” in the 200o’s. I particularly liked “Bad News Comes to Town” and “Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me”. The songs “Doghouse” and “Sunny Inside” veer into Otis Redding territory and I mean that in a good way. There is a very muscular, early version of “Crime In the City” that just “rawks”, the horn section must be taking a cigarette break during that one.

The albums ending song is an epic 19-minute version of “Tonight’s the Night” one of the few back catalog tunes included in this live set. As best I can tell Neil chose that one because he must have thought, “what the fuck, I’m Neil Young”. I think one of the things I like about this odd, bluesy, backwater period of his career was that he’d basically bottomed out. He’d burned his commercial bridges with his record company and his fans. Yet, he didn’t despair, he put out a passionate, compelling blues album. He sounds totally committed and engaged on these performances. He soon abandoned the Bluenotes and put out one of his all time great albums, “Freedom” with the anthem “Rockin’ In the Free World”. I’m not sure that would have happened without the Bluenotes. This is definitely a period in Neil’s career that deserves more investigation.

Turn it up loud…

Cheers!