Neil Young’s ‘Roxy-Tonight’s The Night Live’ Encompasses Musical Ragged Glory (ALBUM REVIEW)

The ever-so-loose aggregation dubbed ‘The Santa Monica Flyers,’ appearing on Neil Young’s Roxy-Tonight’s The Night Live has more than a little in common with his most regular accompanists of recent years, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. Comprised of the Crazy Horse rhythm section of drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot, augmented with lap/pedal steel player Ben Keith and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Nils Lofgren, this fivesome, as fronted here by the Canadian rock icon, reminds how ‘sloppy’ can be positive virtue when it comes to playing songs that as cut close-to-the-bone as those on Tonight’s The Night.

And it is this the final entry in what would come to be known as Young’s ‘ditch trilogy,’  following Time Fades Away and On the Beach, upon which this selection of ten concert culls is based.  Neil had just emerged with these very same cohorts from the studio sessions that formed the basis of the effort that, with its two companion pieces, once and for all defining the man’s willfully idiosyncratic nature: from the very start of the set, introduced by Bill Graham in 1973 at a then brand-new West Hollywood California club, the quintet displays a confidence that equals its abandon, particularly on “Albuquerque,”building inexorably (but deceptively so) toward the emphatic conclusion in front of a rowdy crowd.

Captured here in all its ramshackle glory, originally under the supervision of Neil’s confidante and adviser, the late David Briggs, the fivesome’s ragged performance encompasses most of, but not quite all, the entire TTN song sequence.  ”Borrowed Tune” is omitted as is the live take of “Downtown,” (a Crazy Horse cut led by then recently-deceased guitarist/vocalist Danny Whitten), while “Lookout Joe,” recorded with ‘The Stray Gators’ band that toured with Young in support of his  solo breakthrough Harvest, is missing as well. But, as on the eventual official LP release, two versions of “Tonight’s The Night” appear here, all of which has been mastered from the original analog tapes, with further post-production by John Hanlon for the sake of this release (the genesis of which Neil recounts in some detail with his liner notes).

The results of those efforts include  “Walk On” as a welcome and emphatic conclusion. The somewhat upbeat nature of the opener of OTB, in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek likes of Young’s between-song repartee, also serves to reaffirm this archive release and by extension, the original title, as a statement of purpose. That said, the very spontaneity of the Roxy performance neither may hold only limited appeal for the casual fan of the man; while closers of the now forty-five-year-old shows were the crowd-pleasing likes of “Cowgirl in the Sand,” no such famous and familiar tunes appear here; instead, with the reflective likes“Mellow My Mind” and “World on a String,” Neil and company here confront the psychic shock arising from the passing of the aforementioned Whitten (and CSNY roadie Bruce Berry), the subdued fragility of which the fivesome counters with deliberate acoustic guitar and piano, plus high-harmony vocals, arranged for “New Mama.”

Throughout, Lofgren, Keith, Talbot and Molina are as engaged as their leader, perhaps questionably so on the wobbly “Roll Another Number (For The Road)” or the almost terminally world-weary likes of “Tired Eyes.” And “Speakin’ Out” belies its title because the leader radiates little clarity of mind (in keeping with his rambling between-song repartee). Even so, Young clearly has a connection with his bandmates and it’s a reciprocal bond that imbues the musicianship with a tangible intensity if a somewhat guarded sort.

The superficially tenuous, but fundamentally sound alliance of these musicians carries those traits that have earmarked the most durable work Neil has offered over the years, that is, a decided lack of affectation combined with an engaging vulnerability. As a result, the nearly half a decade that’s passed since the recording of Tonight’s The Night, Live only renders it an even more formidable entry into this artist’s official discography, much like last year’s studio archive,  Hitchhiker.  And while this latest title admittedly gains some punch as a companion piece to the recently-released PARADOX (Original Music From The Film), Roxy will easily stand on its own, likes its counterpart a somewhat puzzling, but nevertheless provocative product of Neil Young’s unusually fertile creative mind.  

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