Journey through the past
For quite some time now Neil Young has been embarking on a journey through the past, a journey from which we, his fans, are benefiting from, as we see how his inexhaustible archive, with albums unreleased at the time and mythical concerts, continues to give birth to new volumes, almost without a break. If in February Way Down in the Rust Bucket was released - a live album from 1990, from the Ragged Glory tour with Crazy Horse, which consolidated him as the 'Godfather of Grunge' -, now it's time for him to show us another facet, the acoustic side, with a live album recorded during his solo tour Journey Through the Past, recorded on January 22, 1971 at the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut.
The album was recorded only three days after the legendary performance in his native Canada at Massey Hall, a concert album that was released in 2007 and to which this record is obviously related, both in the setlist and in the general sound. If we listen to Young himself, this album is "a quieter performance, without the party atmosphere of Massey Hall, captured live on 16mm film (there is a DVD version) and lovingly restored from old analog tapes. ‘Young Shakespeare’ is a very special event. To my fans, I say it's the best of all those on that tour."
Let's put ourselves in the moment, on January 22, 1971, Neil Young was 25 years old but a veteran of the music business. His career had started with the Squires in 1963; he had had his phase as a folk singer influenced by Dylan - writing Sugar Mountain when he was only 19 years old; had moved to Los Angeles where he would form the influential Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills and Richie Furay; had recorded his first solo album in 1968 and his second the following year with the indispensable Crazy Horse; had then rejoined Stills in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; released a hit record with them, Déjà Vu; and had solidified his solo career with the best album of his career, After The Gold Rush, also released in 1970. So he may have been young, but the guy who sat on his own, accompanied only by his trusty Martin D-45 and a piano on the Shakespeare Theatre stage, was a veteran with many songs behind him.
What's more, at that moment Young was boiling over with creativity and the songs were appearing as if by magic, the tour that had begun as Journey Through The Past - because it was a journey covering his entire career - was becoming more and more focused on the new songs, songs that would appear in successive albums such as Journey Through the Past, Old Man, A Man Needs a Maid, Heart of Gold, The Needle and the Damage Done, Dance Dance Dance Dance (which he would end up giving to Crazy Horse for their first solo album) and See the Sky About to Rain. In Young Shakespeare appear Old Man, The Needle and the Damage Done, Journey Through the Past, Dance Dance Dance Dance Dance and a medley in which he plays A Man Needs a Maid and Heart of Gold. One of the most notable things about this album is seeing an artist present songs that will become milestones in his career to an audience that doesn't know them yet, resulting in funny moments like when before playing the medley Young says "I usually screw up halfway through because I don't play piano particularly well.... But since you've never heard it before you probably think that's how it goes, so whatever".
Another of the attractions of this album is to see how he transforms songs that were incendiary electric explosions, such as Ohio, Cowgirl In The Sand and Down By The River, into intimate acoustic numbers that are typical of a singer-songwriter. Young demonstrates his enormous talent as a composer because these songs work as well when they are stripped down, something that is also confirmed with the excellent Tell Me Why, Don't Let It Bring You Down and Helpless, which are closer to their original form.
The album closes with an eight-minute version of Sugar Mountain, one of the first songs he composed and recorded with Buffalo Springfield. In it Young demonstrates his mastery as an interpreter, alternating the song with stories about how he composed it, saying that in its original version it had 123 verses and how he found it difficult to reduce it to its final state, and then going on to sing what he considers the worst verses of the original version; however he gets the audience on his side - and then tops it off by asking for an ovation for William Shakespeare...
In short, this represents a new opportunity to hear, and see, one of the giants of popular music in one of the best moments of his career.