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November 17, 2006

Filmore gives portrait of the artist as a Young man

The wait is over. After years of anticipation, fans of Neil Young can finally put a face on his early years as a solo act. Live at the Fillmore East marks the first volume in what should be many releases as part of Young’s archives series. On the album, Young plays a raw and astounding set with Crazy Horse at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York City. With searing versions of “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” Young and Crazy Horse blew the doors off the Fillmore.

A bootleg of these sets circulated for years under the title Sunset Cowboy. Curiously, the song “Cinnamon Girl” presented on the bootleg is absent from the archive release. This omission appears more glaring since the album runs a meager 43 minutes. Nevertheless, Live at the Fillmore East gives the listener a taste of Crazy Horse in its infancy. Immensely gifted guitarist Danny Whitten, whose drug addiction and death inspired “Needle and the Damage Done” and album Tonight’s the Night, can be heard dueling Young throughout the album.

The concert occurred right before Young hit his creative peak during the early 1970s. March 1970 was 10 months after Young’s second solo record and his first with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Young’s collaboration with Crazy Horse proved to be a fruitful one that has continued to the present day. The concerts recorded on this album are also significant because they came only four days before the debut release by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY). By placing Live at the Fillmore East in its historical context, one realizes that Young was just hitting his full musical stride.

The album opens with “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” as Young’s unrestrained voice perfectly meshes with the inexperienced intensity of Crazy Horse. The second song, “Winterlong,” brings out the full passion of Crazy Horse. It’s a beautiful number previously found only on Young’s triple album compilation Decade. The first two songs display the stark change from the melodious harmonizing of CSNY to the unapologetic harmony employed by the gritty Crazy Horse.

“Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” first appeared from a 1970 performance at the Fillmore East on Young’s dark opus Tonight’s The Night. The song is co-written by Young and Whitten and also features the two sharing vocals. Whitten’s ferocious vocals and excellent musicianship remind the audience of another superb talent lost to drug addiction.

The highlights of Live at the Fillmore East are the two extended versions of “Down By The River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” “Down By The River” is classic Neil Young with its tale of love and betrayal, featuring solos that showcase the guitar prowess of Whitten and Young. “Cowgirl In the Sand” employs minimalist lyrics with unbridled onstage energy. It’s the last track on Live at the Fillmore East, and it gives the album a perfect ending.

I wonder what will arrive in the future as the archive series grows. Perhaps Neil Young will finally allow his legendary live album Time Fades Away, only available on vinyl and bootleg to be remastered. None of the eight songs on Time Fades Away have ever been released on any Young compilation to date. Indeed, the genius of Time Fades Away was that it was a live album of entirely unreleased material, an act as rare as it is bold.

For this reviewer, there is one album that remains the holy grail of the archive series: Homegrown. The album is the completed but never released sequel to Harvest. Several songs from Homegrown have been released on later albums, but the entirety of the album remains unreleased.

Neil Young’s archives series seems similar to Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series. There are many complete shows treasured amongst collectors that could have been chosen instead of this one. Yet, Live at the Fillmore East is a great album, both for the actual performances and for the things that it lacks—it leaves the listener craving more classic Young. His die-hard fans have been hungry to sample the archives for many years, and Live at the Fillmore East has merely whetted their appetites. They are far from full.