Music News

Neil Young Friends & Relatives

Does the world need yet another live Neil Young album? If your response lingers upon shuddering memories of Frampton Comes Alive!, then vacates into the realm of Pearl Jam-does-25-live-CDs abject boredom, you're probably reading the wrong review. For Young, among all contemporary performers still extant (the Dead don't count, despite their ongoing Dick's Picks live series), offers the most consistently satisfying concert records in the biz.

No two are alike -- in fact, Young employs an almost perverse zeal in mounting what consumers don't expect -- and they never fall prey to the dreaded "mirror syndrome" whereby the last studio record gets tarted up/dumbed down, the set list is given a greatest-live-hits injection and the artist burns up one more contractual obligation, hassle-free.

So yeah, actually, we do need another 'un. Even the title, Road Rock Volume 1, bears suggestive witness; despite persistent rumors that his umpteen-disc Archives project will finally surface in July, for now, the prospect of a Volume 2 seems the likelier one. Too, as is becoming a Young tradition to serve up a concurrent concert video that is not simply a visual analogue to the music disc, the Red Rocks Live VHS and DVD document only serves to illustrate that as long as the man tours -- and the last couple of years have seen him touring steadily, as a solo acoustic act, as one-fourth of CSN&Y and as the titular focus of his "Friends & Relatives" -- there will be an ample availability of documentation to keep the fans happy. Archives be damned.

RRV1 has an endearingly schizo feel that marries the astonishing fretboard flurries of Arc/Weld (1991, with Crazy Horse) to the woozy-blooze wobble of 1973's Time Fades Away, additionally blending in folk-roots elements of '78 studio album Comes a Time. Surrounded by industry vets Duck Dunn (bass), Jim Keltner (drums) and Spooner Oldham (piano), plus longtime collaborator Ben Keith on assorted guitars and sister Astrid Young and wife Pegi Young on background vocals, Young indulges a spontaneous, feel-good vibe that spills from the stage in archetypal "tight-but-loose" fashion.

While the tour from which RRV1 is culled was ostensibly in support of Young's recent Silver & Gold album, the concert trail was dubbed the "Music in Head Tour," and set lists were not S&G showcases, typically only including two to four of its songs. RRV1, in fact, contains nothing from S&G, featuring instead a solid dose of mid-'70s Young material, one new tune and a fired-up version of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" (long a concert favorite for Young, it has Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders, the tour's opening act, swapping off verses with him). Boozehounds and bikers will no doubt appreciate Young's funky, honky-tonkin' "Motorcycle Mama" (sis Astrid stepping to the mike to play the part of the mama) and the some-get-stoned-some-get-strange hippie rock of "Walk On." New composition "Fool For Your Love" is less successful, sounding like a holdover from Young's quirky 1983 '50s-rock experiment Everybody's Rockin', but after repeated listens, its sing-along melody turns insidiously infectious.

And unreconstructed admirers of Young's chart-topping '72 album Harvest get a magnificent 11-minute reading of "Words" that attains a near-anthemic grandeur, Young and Keith trading incandescent licks on electric and pedal steel guitar. Speaking of anthems: "Cowgirl in the Sand" has been performed thousands of times by Young over the years, yet here it never sounded fresher, more vital, with some of his most kinetic and sublime riffing ever issuing forth over 18 electrifying minutes. "Tonight's the Night," too, is a jaw-dropper, hewing closely to its original studio arrangement -- pianist Oldham taking a major role here -- and conjuring up a spooky aura of dread, death and ghosts amid the deep-blue grooves the band explores.

Worth noting, too, is that the record's mix, for a live album, is so unsterile that you can practically see bacteria forming on the shiny CD surface. (An audio DVD version of it is also available.) While every instrument and vocal earns precise and clear positioning, plenty of audience noise is heard, and there's also a significant (and no doubt deliberate, given Young's never-say-die allegiance to analog sound's warmth and depth) amount of bleed between microphones. It's perhaps a minor detail on paper, but a telling one for the listening experience. This ain't a bunch of shaved-headed dopes at Ozzfest playing to click tracks and feigning chaos; this is live rock 'n' roll, straight outta the blue and right into the black. My, my.

Red Rocks Live is taken from two shows, September 19 and 20, 2000, at the venerable Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, near Denver. (The concert on the 20th also was the source of a live webcast at No doubt bootlegs of that are en route.) As RRV1 contains no venue source info, it's hard to say precisely what, if any, overlap there is between the CD and the VHS/DVD. No matter; the video runs twice as long, at a full two hours, featuring 19 songs. Due to a massive thunderstorm, "Cowgirl in the Sand" is retitled "Cowgirl in the Rain," and band members are visibly wet, having endured great wind gusts as well, by the end of the show. (At the start, one sees Young's manager backstage, conferring gravely with venue security and telling them to shut down the concert if the weather gets too hairy.)

Highlights include a couple of Young rarities ("Bad Fog of Loneliness," "Winterlong"), some delicate Harvest Moon gems (the title song, "Unknown Legend"), a garagey "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" and the aforementioned "Tonight's the Night." And While Young & Co. may not be the most visually arresting group ever to hit the boards -- nobody's wearing Slipknot-style bondage masks, none of the musicians throw themselves into the mosh pit, and neither Astrid nor Pegi Young succumbs to the time-honored rock 'n' roll tradition to flash their tits -- it's still a pleasure to view people onstage who are brought together by an enduring bond, exchanging satisfied looks among themselves after a particularly emotional moment and passing that vibe along to the audience. With simple and tasteful lighting (primarily yellows, oranges and lavenders) and superb sound, it's the kind of crank-up-the-tunes and warm-yourself-by-the-fire concert document they used to make. And Young, clearly, understands something about keeping traditional values alive.

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Fred Mills