Looking through Neil Young’s back catalogue you realise that he’s released as more live albums than some do in their entire career. Some are incredible – ‘Rust Never Sleeps’, ‘Time Fades Away’ – and some are just OK – ‘Unplugged’ and ‘Road Rock Vol. 1’ – but they all have their moments. New live album ‘Royce Hall 1971’ definitely has its moments.
What is remarkable about ‘Royce Hall 1971’ is that at least a quarter of the set wouldn’t be released for another year. The audience is listening to ‘Heart Of Gold’, ‘Old Man’ and ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’ probably for the first time. Young even jokes about this; “Just cheer at the end”. When he starts ‘Heart Of Gold’ the audience doesn’t react. After 1972 there would have been an explosion of cheers that you would have missed the start. I know that happens whenever I’ve seen Neil Young live.
Something that really comes across is how funny Young is. Some of the links are hilarious. Before launching into ‘Old Man’ Young says: “This is a new song I wrote about the house I live on”. “There is an old guy who lives there. Louis. He came with the place…” The audience cracks up. Before ‘A Man Needs A Maid’ he says: “Here’s a song. In all the songs I have. I have two, or three, that I categorise as weird songs.” The audience laughs. “Now, this is the newest weird one I have”. The crowd laughs again.
On the album ‘Sugar Mountain’ clocks in at a whopping nine-minutes. The majority of that is Neil Young telling elongated stories about the creation process. “You got Johnny Cash next week”, whilst playing a book-chick-a-boom riff. “Then I’m sure Arlo’s here somewhere tonight” as the riff is a bit like an Arlo Guthrie riff. “You can believe me when I say this. It takes a lot of nerve to sing this verse,” he adds. “When I wrote it I wrote 127 verses, and this verse is the verse I chose as the worst verse. What I’m saying is for me to sing this verse for you takes a lot of support from you. Which you can do by singing much, much louder next time!” Then he finishes: “Try not to get to carried away with it”. The audience is lapping it up. As are we at home.
Listening to ‘Royce Hall 1971’ I’m thoroughly entertained. This is a period of Neil Young’s career that I gloss over. Don’t get me wrong, ‘Harvest’ is probably Young’s best album, objectively speaking, but it’s one I never feel the need to play. Give me ‘Time Fades Away’, ‘Le Noise’, ‘Dead Man’, ‘Everybody Knows’ and ‘Ragged Glory’ any day of the week and I’m happy.
But while listening to ‘Royce Hall 1971’ a strange feeling starts to talk hold. At first I don’t know what it is, but after a while it dawns on me. Its jealousy and resentment towards the audience. They are watching him rip through a setlist that the majority of his fans would love to hear in an intimate venue. They’re watching him deliver a set where he’s confident but slightly bashful. He knows these songs are some of the strongest he’s ever written, but ‘Harvest’ is still a year away, so he’s slightly coy about them.
Neil Young is also isn’t accompanied by anyone. He’s just has his guitar between himself and the audience. Its wonderful to hear. And this is why ‘Royce Hall 1971’ is a remarkable album. Yes, we’ve heard all the songs before, but not quite like this.
Words: Nick Roseblade
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