While the world waits with baited breath for Neil Young‘s legendary (and legendarily delayed) Archive box set, here we have a third live archive release to follow the well-received Live At Massey Hall 1971 and Live At The Fillmore East. Together they form part of the inelegantly titled Archive Performance Series.
Sugar Mountain is compiled from two nights of solo acoustic shows at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor Michigan, recorded on 9th and 10th November 1968. What has excited Young aficionados is that these performances predate the release of the man’s low-key debut album (albeit only by a couple of days).
What we have here then, effectively, is a snapshot of one of the world’s most respected singer-songwriters before he had become an icon. Young had recently departed the ranks of Buffalo Springfield after the in-fighting with Stephen Stills had become too much, and was busy road testing material as he staked out the first tentative steps of a solo career.
What is remarkable here is how at ease Young sounds with the appreciative audience, as the inclusion of his between song banter indicates. Sure, his comedic touch leaves a lot to be desired, but it is a pleasant surprise to hear old stony face cracking jokes.
The songs on show include a smattering of Buffalo Springfield tracks, material from his soon-to-be released debut, and a couple of classics that would not see the light of day for several years (including the title track, to my mind still one of the best songs ever written about lost youth).
The production on Sugar Mountain is not as polished as Live At Massey Hall, which was recorded three years later as Young’s career trajectory was reaching superstar status. As a result the atmosphere is electrically intimate, making the listener feel like they are actually at the gig – the true marker of a great live album.
Young’s single acoustic guitar and quavery, reed-like voice are centre stage, lending a new-found intimacy to Buffalo Springfield tracks such as Mr. Soul, Expecting To Fly and Broken Arrow, all of which had been elaborate production affairs on album. Another Springfield classic, Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing, is also a highlight of the album.
The performance of tracks such as The Loner and The Old Laughing Lady also benefit from the bare bones recording, stripping them of the lush production style that they would be saddled with on Young’s debut album. The lengthy Last Trip To Tulsa remains a curio in the Young oeuvre, however, with the song’s sub-Dylan ramblings sounding equally out of place at this concert.
Quite what Young is going to put on the Archive box set, heaven only knows. It is only to be hoped that he hasn’t cherry picked all the best bits for these releases in the Archive Performance Series.