Murphy’s Law

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Archive for March, 2007

Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall ( Review)

Posted by bullmurph on March 22, 2007

Neil Young

Live at Massey Hall


US release date: 13 March 2007
UK release date: 19 March 2001

by Sean Murphy

cover art

Neil Young’s Journey Through the Past

What an opportune time to be a Neil Young fan. Those of us still tingling and reeling from the remarkably hype-worthy Live at the Fillmore East may be neither worthy nor ready, but the next installment has arrived. (Typical Neil: make the fans wait for decades to deliver the goods, then drop two bombs within a matter of months.) Live at Massey Hall offers an ideal counterpart for the sublime sonic assault of the Crazy Horse concert; indeed, this recording is as restrained as the previous one was riotous, showcasing Young in as intimate a setting as possible: alone, in a small venue.

The show, from January 19, 1971, contains a set list that has been widely bootlegged over the years, with generally substandard fidelity. The sound quality, as it was on the last volume, is astonishing, making this official release welcome and instantly essential. If, like myself, you shudder anytime a reviewer claims that a concert sounds like it is right in your living room, imagine how it feels to actually write those words. And yet. This is Neil, naked: not unplugged in the contemporary sense (i.e., unplugged with a 50-piece string section and mostly non-amplified backing musicians), just the singer, his guitar, and occasional piano—an old school solo gig. The audience is respectful and refreshingly quiet during the songs, partly because a majority of the songs are brand new, mostly because it is not an American crowd (Massey Hall is in Toronto, making this, in effect, a homecoming for the native son).

The context of these first two volumes in the Neil Young Archives series was touched on in an earlier review, but it is nevertheless enlightening to consider what the peripatetic musician had been up to in the staggeringly prolific months before this concert. Shortly after concluding his tour with Crazy Horse (documented on the Fillmore East release), he returned to the studio and cranked out another extraordinary album, After the Gold Rush. Then, infuriated and inspired by the Kent State shootings, he quickly wrote and recorded the seminal single “Ohio”, featuring backing vocals by David Crosby. That summer he hit the road again with Crosby, Stills and Nash, which subsequently led to the release of the live album 4 Way Street. Like a shark that remains in constant motion to survive, Young came off that tour and began writing new songs for yet another album, which he began working into his solo performances in early 1971. The Massey Hall recording was sufficiently impressive that Young’s producer, David Briggs, practically begged him to release it as a live double album. Typically, Neil never even found the time to listen to the tapes; he was busy putting the finishing touches on the album he had already decided to drop next, which happened to be Harvest, the tour de force that cemented his reputation for all time. He was twenty-four years old.

Where Live at the Fillmore East exhibits a confident group basking in the afterglow of a recently recorded classic, Live at Massey Hall reveals the blueprints of songs that would, in short order, become rock music touchstones. The rather solemn reading of “Old Man” is laudable, but only hints at how poignant the polished version would eventually be, courtesy of a full backing band featuring James Taylor’s banjo and backing vocals. Likewise, it’s intriguing to hear the snippet of what sounds like a throwaway number that would, in fact, become “Heart of Gold”. A revealing rap introducing a new tune he wrote (the previously unreleased “Bad Fog of Loneliness”) for an upcoming appearance on The Johnny Cash Show (!) mentions James Taylor and Linda Rondstadt, who were slated to appear with him. A couple of weeks later, Young coaxed both artists into the studio, where they would provide indelible contributions to both “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold”. Young utilized the London Symphony Orchestra to beef up two other songs that would appear on Harvest: “There’s a World” and “A Man Needs a Maid”. Here, they are disarmingly stripped down and demonstrate how adept Young was at constructing short, stark songs that manage to convey vulnerability and sweetness. Another example is the obscure gem “See the Sky About to Rain” (reworked for 1974’s On the Beach), although it’s impossible to imagine that particular song without the slide guitar and Wurlitzer. 

The rest of the concert splits the difference between songs from recent albums and songs that would turn up on imminent recordings (exceptions being the aforementioned “Bad Fog of Loneliness” and the atypically upbeat, therefore delightful “Dance Dance Dance”). “Journey Through the Past” and “Helpless” both name-check—and get appreciative shout-outs from—the Canadian audience, and Young makes sure to include highlights from After the Gold Rush, including “Tell Me Why” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”. Comparing the restrained acoustic takes of “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” to the glass-breaking versions from the Fillmore East release provides living (and live) proof of Young’s resourcefulness. Unplugged and unintimidated, Young is taking no prisoners.

Fittingly, the two high points of the concert are songs pointing in opposite directions: where Neil had come from, and where he was headed. “On the Way Home” (from his Buffalo Springfield days) is a perfect choice to open the proceedings, featuring the singer at a moment when, possibly, his voice was never better: fragile, almost feminine, yet assured and unmistakable. On the other hand, even as Neil was getting used to being a celebrity, he was understandably wary of the trappings that had derailed some of rock’s biggest stars. His brief introduction to the recently written “The Needle and the Damage Done”—a eulogy for Crazy Horse band mate and recent heroin casualty Danny Whitten—reveals the sorrow and culpability Young was only beginning to really wrestle with. And again, that voice: it is a devastating, beautiful performance. This, then, is Neil Young as accessible and honest as he has ever been, busy at work on the soundtrack of his life, an open letter to anyone willing to listen.

Live at Massey Hall 1971 – Trailer


— 20 March 2007


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Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle ( Review)

Posted by bullmurph on March 22, 2007

Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle

Battery Milk


by Sean Murphy

Few bad things can be said regarding vibraphonist Mike Dillon. Critters Buggin, Garage A Trois, Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade: if the names of these acts mean anything to you, you already are well aware that Dillon’s contributions to each comprise an integral component of their appeal. Anyone who has had the good fortune of watching him perform will attest to an irrepressible energy and ebullience that brighten any proceedings with which he is involved. He has, for most of the last decade, been a seminal character actor in the underground, determinedly independent music scene. The time, it seems, is right for his star turn as a leading man, and Battery Milk , the first release from Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle, should be cause for celebration.

It is not. So what went wrong? Well, things start off with a bang: “GoGo’s Theme” sets a tone of immediate, raucous bliss with rollicking percussion (courtesy of Dillon and drummer GoGo Ray), fat bass (the double assault of JJ “Jungle” Richards and Ron Johnson) and funky sax from Mark Southerland. This is thinking person’s party music; the unit is locked and loaded, bringing the Bonnaroo to your bedroom. It is, in short, a perfect song to open an album and is pretty much a perfect song, period. Expectations met, it’s go (go) time. The second track, “Broc’s Last Stand” continues in an infectiously upbeat style, with Dillon coming to the fore, displaying vibraphone work that has become less bombastic (not that there was anything wrong with that) and more melodious: his playing has transcended mere accompaniment and a unique and delightful virtuosity is on display. Congratulations are in order: Mike Dillon has arrived as an artist who can—and should—be front and center, leading his own band(s).

Track three is the turning point. It starts off with some delightful distortion and crisp sax lines from Southerland: We are in Critters Buggin territory, and that is a great place to be. Then, rather abruptly, a strange noise enters. The sound of a human voice. It sounds familiar, for a moment, and you might think: who let Mike Patton in the studio? Or, better yet, maybe Mike Dillon is being a team player and recognizing the (apparently) still unwritten rule that Patton’s increasingly predictable cartoon persona has to appear on at least 70 or so albums per year. Nope, it’s Dillon himself (or, if someone else can be blamed, the liner notes don’t reveal the culprit). The song concludes the way it starts: strong, and without the distracting spoken-word sinister/silly antics. Okay, maybe that was just an odd lapse, an unfortunate choice. But no, the hoarse whisperer is back on the next track, “Robbing the Bank”. Indeed, he shticks around for the next two tunes. If the music wasn’t so wonderful, perhaps the superfluous vocals would be a slightly quirky, even devious diversion. But as the subsequent songs steadily devolve from bad Mr. Bungle to watered down Don Van Vliet one can only ask: Why? Perhaps it is just this reviewer’s prejudice, but to be perfectly frank, if I want to listen to Captain Beefheart, I’ll go directly to the source and put on a Tom Waits record.

In fairness, after repeated listens the vocals are somewhat less grating, and it’s a certainty that these songs will be a lot of fun to listen to live, but the misplaced spirit of adventure mars what should have been a fantastic album. Astonishingly, the worst is yet to come, when disappointment turns to disdain. When the familiar opening notes of Aaron Neville’s “Hercules” begin, it is a threshold type of moment. What a wise, inspired choice, covering one of the all-time Crescent City soul workouts, particularly with the stench of Katrina still suffocating the air of that great city. But then the unthinkable occurs: someone starts singing (this time the culprit is JJ “Jungle” Richards), and the frail, forced vocals are, unfortunately, an embarrassment. It’s not merely a bad decision for a weak singer to try and imitate the mighty Aaron Neville, it borders on the disrespectful. A shame, since an instrumental take might have well been an understated way to capture the poignancy and profundity of the original masterpiece.

The remaining four numbers split the difference with two tasty (and vocal-free) jams and two more throwaways, both of which aim to make political statements. The first, “Stupid Americans”, is too stale and cliché-ridden to work, and the other, “Bad Man”, employs the no-longer original strategy of using George W. Bush’s own butchering of the English language via inserted samples to delineate what a dunce he is. For recent examples of confident and engaging political statements without words or gimmicks, one might check out Stanton Moore’s latest effort, or Bobby Previte’s instant-classic The Coalition of the Willing .

In conclusion, it must be acknowledged that there are not exactly a wealth of instantly recognizable vibraphonists on the scene right now, and it does not appear likely that this generation will produce the next Bobby Hutcherson. And that is okay. Hutcherson did enough work that enough of us still haven’t quite caught up yet, and he’ll span all subsequent generations that listen to music. And so, perhaps because it’s easy to do, enthusiastic promoters might claim that Dillon is carrying the torch. Actually, he is on his own path, and there is every reason to expect a further maturation of this cerebral sort of jam-band music. If we’re lucky, Dillon will restrain his impulse to imitate and have more surprises—the positive kind—as he continues to grow, and groove.


— 22 February 2007

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