I've been listening to Live at Massey Hall 1971, the third installment of the Neil Young Archives Performance Series, and I think it's pretty great.
Previously, I'd thought there were two Youngs - the razor thin troubador and itinerant piano tinkler, and the sludge-flinging axe wielder of guitar righteousness. If you're looking for the latter, don't get this album. This is an acoustic and piano performance, intimate, and young sounding, and I haven't not-heard an audience this quiet since Dylan's '64 Halloween Concert bootleg. And I think it's a soundboard recording, so those of you averse to live recordings are in luck - this is pristine and completely enjoyable.
I don't think there are two Youngs. Rather, there is only one, and he is the servant of his music. The reason he can fling the sludge and serenade the loneliness away is that he has the unique ability to lose himself in his performance. When I saw him play with Crostby, Stills, & Nash, he was clearly the only musician on that stage who conceived of himself as somehow under the music, a slave to it, a lover waiting for it. (Those other fat cats did their best to not appear too closely aligned with a Jimmy Buffet-ish retirment ethos). That said, on this '71 recording, the same seems to be true: his guitar, his piano, his guitar's licks and progressions, his alpine voice, his odd sense of rhythm and chunk-a-chunk strumming all meld together in some beautiful, northern parody of the one-man band.
Case in point: when he moves into "A Man Needs a Maid" (here suited with "Heart of God"), though he is one man on a piano, I cannot help hearing a philharmonic just waiting behind the curtains - that they are not, and I still hear them, is a testimony to his melodic sensibilities and his ability to be present and fully available to his music. In other words, this performance is not a reductive re-tooling of some good ol' songs, but a brand new performance of them, fresh, and enlivened, rather than regurgitated, by his solo performance. He has given himself to them as though they were the same labored constructions of studio work, and he has likewise freighted them with all of the anxiety, hope, and loneliness of Young's early songwriting.
"Tell Me Why"
"Cowgirl in the Sand"
"Don't Let it Bring You Down"
"Down by the River"
and of course, "Helpless"
Enjoy it, if you want to.