Neil Young’s performance for Young Shakespeare is absolutely superb. In fact, this is the very kind of show by which this great rock iconoclast elevated his profile around the time of his earliest collaborations with Crazy Horse (in its first incarnation) as well as Crosby Stills and Nash. To that end, the superlative quality of the concert renders moot the extraneous factors surrounding its release on audio and video.
Recorded on January 22, 1971, during the ‘Journey Through the Past’ solo tour, just two months after the release of the seminal After the Gold Rush LP, the former Buffalo Springfielder gave two performances at The Shakespeare Theater in Stratford CT. Initially intended for presentation on German TV later that year, this video content has not been widely available (although some appeared on the CD/DVD archive edition of Live at Massey Hall 1971, which took place three days prior ). For this release, though, Young worked with members of his Archives team (including engineer John Hanlon) and reassembled the footage from 16mm work prints and other sources. The combination of images imparts a decidedly vintage air to its forty-five minute running time.
Strictly on its own terms, however, the music sounds timeless in its stripped-down setting. Young plays acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica, quietly introducing confessional songs such as “Tell Me Why” in an off-the-cuff way that only renders them even more intimate. Neil also applies that personable manner to material that doesn’t lend itself to good-natured repartee, namely “The Needle and The Damage Done.” In the process, he turns them unmistakably personal, without harping on the subject(s) at hand.
On the contrary, no songs go on too very long here. As a result, the inclusion of improvisational warhorses such as “Cowgirl In The Sand” and “Down By The River” is all the more surprising. But both those culls from 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere benefit from the solitary nature of their stark renditions, as does, to an even greater degree, “Helpless,” Neil’s contribution to Deja Vu. The alternately mournful, despairing quality intrinsic to those songs is particularly resonant in this austere setting.
Yet no less striking is the cheerful “Dance Dance Dance.” Its decidedly upbeat air benefits from a juxtaposition with the foreboding “Ohio” immediately preceding. The former tune, described by Young as ‘hoedown music,’ is just one selection that elicits more than just a nominal audience reaction, in the form of clap-along from the audience; elsewhere, the relaxed atmosphere in the venue is in decided contrast to the celebratory nature of the aforementioned Canadian tour-stop: the informality may in fact reach its peak with Young at his most vulnerable, sitting at the piano playing and singing “Journey Through The Past.”
The homecoming performance released in 2007 is documented in its entirety in the form of nineteen tracks. Young Shakespeare, on the other hand, is comprised of a dozen cuts, begging the question of whether it is a composite of the two shows Neil Young played this date or one in its entirety. Not that such distinction affects the release on its own terms or the ultimate impact of the music, but pertinent detail of that nature illuminates the historical context of inclusions such as “A Man Needs A Maid”/”Heart of Gold: ” at this time, neither had yet been recorded for 1972’s Harvest.
Still, unlike the recently-issued vault titles, Return to Greendale and Down in the Rust Bucket, this is the first one by which Neil Young steps beyond the threshold of repeating himself, albeit just barely. The somewhat conflicting nature of the various packages also creates a close collision between art and commerce: in addition to combinations of audio and video, this concert offering is also available as a standalone DVD (but exclusively available through Neil’s own website).
Nevertheless, the sound of this inveterate iconoclast leading a singalong with his audience on “Sugar Mountain” is just one of the multiple precious moments here. As such, it renders moot the more mundane aspects of of Young Shakespeare.