“I’m going back to Canada on a journey through the past,” Neil Young sang to his Toronto audience at Massey Hall on January 19, 1971. Young left Canada for California in 1966, and helped form Buffalo Springfield before leaving to start a solo career in 1968. By 1971, Young had released three solo albums, as well as the landmark Déjà Vu with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. That year Young was at his most prolific, bursting at the seams creatively. Despite the success of After the Gold Rush the previous fall, his musical depth was only just beginning to show.
At the beginning of Live at Massey Hall, Young exclaims: “I will mostly sing new songs tonight. I’ve written so many new ones that I can’t think of anything else to do with them other than sing them.” The live album is a window into the Harvest-era songs in their rawest state. That day, he sat for two shows alone on the stage with either a guitar in his lap or a piano in front of him.
The songs are truly amazing. He played “Ohio,” “I Am A Child,” and “Needle and the Damage Done,” among others. He also stripped down “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” two electric epics from his sophomore effort Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. The highlight of the record is the track “A Man Needs a Maid/Heart of Gold Suite.” Still in their infancy, the two songs comprising the suite had not yet morphed into their studio counterparts, which were released in February 1972. He played both songs on the piano, and they work beautifully together. The two songs converse with related lines. Young sings, “To give a love, you gotta live a love” in “A Man Needs a Maid,” and responds at the beginning of “Heart of Gold” with “I want to live, I want to give.”
The DVD companion to the album is worth the extra price. The highly personal “Helpless” is played during a montage of Young’s hometown of Omemee, Ontario. Songs like “Old Man” and “Journey Through the Past” are intercut with shots of Young alone on the stage and on his ranch in California, a site that proved to be the inspiration for the two song. In “Old Man,” Young sings, “Twenty-four and there’s so much more.” On January 19, 1971 at Massey Hall, a 25-year-old Neil Young gave his audience reason to believe him.