Hard to imagine, when Sugar Mountain Live was recorded in 1968, Neil Young was no more or less than a virtual unknown anxious to gauge the acceptance of both his music and performances months after leaving Buffalo Springfield. Live At Canterbury House is a seventy-minute composite of stereo recordings taken from both nights of solo acoustic performances that constitutes a declaration of purpose and an artistic statement that resonates to this day.
Neil Young exhibits a self-effacing command of the stage where he speaks as well as he plays here, so much that some listeners may find the insightful, often comedic between-song raps as entertaining as the tunes themselves. But this cross-section of Springfield numbers and solo compositions yet to be recorded, isn’t much less captivating than the Live at Massey Hall set recorded three years later, albeit a bit less polished. From the appropriate opening "On the Way Home," "Mr. Soul" and even on those tracks afforded lush production in the studio, such as "Expecting to Fly" and "Broken Arrow," the single acoustic guitar, combined with Young’s quavery voice, create a bracing purity.
Having already been a participant in the stunted potential that was Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young’s performances of these songs, as well as the brilliant “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing," mesh with newer tunes like "I’ve Been Waiting for You" to reinforce the impression this man’s writings always remain unique. The Canadian is respectful of compositions like "The Old Laughing Lady,” yet not so reverential of them he refuses to experiment: his chording sounds like the basis for the more extensive production that eventually appeared on his eponymous debut.
This thirteen-song set-list contains an inherent drama of its own from beginning to its somewhat abrupt end. The abstract imagery and appropriately halting structure of "Last Trip to Tulsa" is far removed from the insistent introspection of "The Loner. " The tender nostalgia of "Sugar Mountain" is of a piece with the graceful melancholy contained within the music and the lyrics of "Birds" (not to appear on record until After the Gold Rush in 1971), both of which contribute to the rarefied atmosphere within the intimate confines of the University of Michigan venue.
Sugar Mountain Live at Canterbury House is not projected to be included in the long-waited and oft delayed Neil Young Archives multi-disc set now due sometime early in 2009. Nevertheless, together with the aforementioned Massey Hall and Live at Fillmore East with Crazy Horse, this release, as scintillating a depiction as it is of a prodigious talent first hitting his stride, may very well render that release anticlimactic.