Neil Young Official Bootleg Series – ‘Carnegie Hall 1970’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Taking Carnegie Hall 1970 strictly on its own terms, Neil Young’s Official Bootleg Series is off to an auspicious start. Like the archive performance that immediately preceded it, Young Shakespeare, this concert recording is absolutely superb, capturing the Canadian rock icon at an early peak of his career. Having honed his solo skills since 1969, it’s hardly surprising Neil Young radiates as much confidence in his performance as his material, but that doesn’t make him any less impressive for the entirety of a show he himself holds in high regard (and one which also holds cachet for having never been bootlegged in the fifty-plus year interim since it took place).

The one-time Buffalo Springfielder was in excellent form both writing and performing on this early show of two on December 4th..   Two concerts that day marked the very first time he played this storied venue, roughly two months After The Gold Rush had come out, and the consistent quality of this material is all the more impressive as the setlist also featured tunes he had not yet recorded. Nevertheless, selections like “See The Sky About to Rain” and “Bad Fog of Loneliness,” reside comfortably alongside what would become signature songs from the aforementioned studio LP, such as “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” or “Tell Me Why.” all of which are integrated with numbers most commonly known as warhorses of electric improvisation, namely “Down By The River”  and” Cowgirl in the Sand.” 

The range of twenty-three selections total delivers consistent impact over the course of the ninety minutes duration. Further indicative of his poise and command of the stage, Young preserves the pacing by switching from acoustic guitar to piano, proffering a  gentle reading of Buffalo Springfield’s “Expecting to Fly,” similar to his rendition of that mythic band’s “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing.” Yet even as Neil could conjure such a palpable air of vulnerability, his self-deprecating intro to “Birds” confirms his grasp of sly humor even as it mimics the adulation he receives from this New York audience.

Of course, all those attributes are equally apparent on the similarly conceived titles released prior to Carnegie Hall 1970. It’s therefore up to the individual listener to gauge the level of familiarity in play here when taking into account–Massey Hall, Sugar Mountain, and Cellar Door, as well as Riverboat 1969 and Dreamin’ Man, Live 1992 (not to mention some unauthorized ones). Aficionados may thus be slightly less impressed with this inaugural issue than the dilettante who’s attracted by the ‘Official Bootleg Series’ designation, but even with five more selections scheduled to become available in 2022, it’s cynical to think this most idiosyncratic of artists is counting on the completists and/or the curious to subsidize this ‘new’ project.

But Neil Young has nevertheless set a high bar for future installments of this initiative with Carnegie Hall 1970. To be fair, he has delved fairly deeply into his vault over the years, not just with the two massive Archives sets, but with periodic releases like the horn-driven Cafe Bluenote and the traditional country leanings of A Treasure. Then there are the riveting curios, Songs For Judy and Hitchhiker, not to mention concert pieces out just in recent months, Return to Greendale and Way Down in the Rustbucket, both with the latter-day lineup of Crazy Horse. Still, more with the original lineup of that quartet (with the late Danny Whitten) would be welcome as would additional discerning takes on the Geffen-era including Trans and Everbody’s Rockin’.

So, it’s not quite fair to say the whole string of exhumations from the vault leads inexorably to the aforementioned solo concert compilation out earlier this year or, for that matter, this virtual sequel. But Neil Young has set quite a challenge for himself in preserving his history for posterity via the Official Bootleg Series and, in so doing, balancing the commercial prospects with the creative ones. That such a confounding hypothetical comes to mind only after hearing Carnegie Hall 1970 is testament to the music’s haunting power and that of the inveterate iconoclast who performed it.

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